Morcombe & Linnaeus

At the Botanic Gardens in Perth, Michael Morcombe’s Australian field guide came into my life. Subtitled Complete Compact Edition, it lived up to its billing by fitting into my bag and not weighing a ton.

Moreover it has clever density maps. These show the likelihood of finding a species, from a faint wash for vagrant records up to a dark splodge covering the highest concentration. This works espe­cially well for Australia, where birds don’t migrate so much. Other field guides have to use colour coding to show seasonal variations.

Better still, my browsing took me past the page for rainbow lorikeet. Its map showed a bright blue spot over Perth. Some clown had introduced the species, back in the 1960s as it happened; my Simpson & Day was decades out of date. So, Morcombe cleared up the puzzle of the parrots outside my hostel.

On the subject of being up-to-date, he isn’t as modern as the IOU (International Ornithologists’ Union), which attempts to keep up with the latest DNA and other research. Nor could his field guide do so, given that the IOU publishes its taxonomy to the Web two or three times a year.

For instance, Morcombe gives rainbow lorikeet its old scientific name of Trichoglossus haematodus, which now identifies the coconut lorikeet of New Guinea. The two species were formerly considered the same until enough evidence suggested they be split. The IOU name for the Australian species then became Trichoglossus moluccanus.

Under the system devised by Linnaeus these scientific names are alternative labels for species, the first word (Trichoglossus) being the genus name (remember from The Tree of Life?) Always italicised, the labels are the lingua franca for scientists around the world in preference to localised common names. Think of Passer domesticus, which to the Brits is the ‘umble sparrer, some Americans call it English sparrow, the French moineau domestique, the Germans Haussperling and the Welsh aderyn y tô. Bet you always wanted to know that. In any case the scientific name is a global standard despite also being somewhat in flux as species are split and, in the opposite process, lumped.

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