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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Fifty Shades of Black

This is not really another in the intermittent series on colours in nature; it's rather about some of the amazingly diverse (and creative) ways in which taxonomists have sought to say simply that an organism - or part of it - is black. One simple way is to use the Latin ater, implying 'dull' or 'gloomy' black.
Black Tiger Snake Notechis ater, Twin Creek Reserve, Western Australia.
(This species is often now regarded as a subspecies of Tiger Snake N. scutatus.)
Another is niger, also Latin, suggesting glossy black (one English manifestation of it is in the word 'negro').

Black Caiman Melanosuchus niger, Blanquillo Lodge, Peruvian Amazon.
(The genus name means 'Black Crocodile', in case you missed the point; we'll get to melano- soon.)
No-one said names have to make sense of course; Black Caimans aren't particularly glossy, and White-cheeked Honeyeaters are even less so; in fact much of them isn't black at all!
White-cheeked Honeyeater Philydonyris niger, Lesueur National Park, Western Australia.
Variants of both these words can be used to describe 'degrees of blackness', or to specify black bits of the organism. 
Undertaker Orchid Pyrorchis nigricans; here the implication is 'blackish'.
Both this and the common name seem weird until you know that the pressed specimens went black in transit!
(It only flowers after a fire.)
Black Falcon Falco subniger, Bladensburg National Park, Queensland.
In other words, 'a bit less than black'!

Pied Butcherbird Cracticus nigrogularis, Lake Logue Nature Reserve, Western Australia.
The 'black throat' of the name is obvious here.

Black-headed Skimmer Crocothemis nigrifrons, National Botanic Gardens Canberra.
The species name just means 'black-fronted'.
 A derivative of ater is atratus, meaning 'clothed in black', or 'in mourning'.
Black Swans Cygnus atratus, Canberra.
Another option would be the Greek melas, but for some reason that is rarely used alone; the Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melas is one of the very few examples I know of (and I'm afraid I can't illustrate it!). However melano- is often used in combination to describe a black aspect of the plant or animal. Blackwood Wattle is Acacia melanoxylon, though the wood isn't what we see when look at the plant! It is however a popular cabinet timber.There are many examples among birds in particular.
Noisy Miner Manorina melanocephala, Canberra; an abundant and pugnacious honeyeater.
Its black head distinguishes it from other miner species.
Black-breasted Buzzard Hamirostra melanosternon, Uluru National Park, Northern Territory.
Both common and species names refer to the same obvious feature.
Other black-implying names are more allegorical or even poetic. Fuliginosus for instance means literally sooty.
Black Currawong Strepera fuliginosa, Cradle Mountain, Tasmania

Black Kangaroo Paw Macropidia fuliginosa, Lesueur National Park, Western Australia.
This fabulous plant really does look sooty too!

Western Grey Kangaroo Macropus fuliginosus, Broken Hill, New South Wales.
A bit more imagination required here, though it's darker than the other grey kangaroo species.
Carbo, Latin for charcoal, is in similar vein.
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Narooma New South Wales.
Linnaeus named this bird Pelecanus carbo; it would certainly be a very black pelican!
Dusky Moorhen Gallinula tenebrosa, Adelaide.
According to John Gould who named it, this is a bird of shadows or dark places!

And black has long been associated with funerals, especially in western traditions, so perhaps it's not surprising that 'funereal' has been used as a descriptor of some black animals.
Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo Calyptorhychus funereus, Murramurang National Park, New South Wales.
Well, it's been fun, but maybe a slightly brighter topic next time!



Susan said...

Good snake pic! and great overview of black in taxonomy speak. At least black is generally actually black in these situations. With insects, if something is referred to as yellow or red it could be any colour between cream and mahogany, via bright orange. It's a sort of code and you just have to learn it. Taxonomists are usually blissfully unaware that they talk of colours differently to the general public, although at Kew they have a letter code which clearly identifies actual colours on pressed specimens (kind of like the Pantone system).

I've just started reading Terre Napoleon by the early 20th C historian Ernest Scott. Do you know this work? It's about Baudin's journey and various inconsistencies in his accounts versus Peron and Laperouse, as well as Flinders. It's available as a free download from the Gutenberg Project if you are interested.

Ian Fraser said...

Hi Susan and thanks for that. I guess part of the problem for taxonomists with naming colours - especially in earlier times - was that specimens changed colour (especially losing it) by the time they got to taxonomy table. I'm very interested in the Kew 'pantone' system - it's probably used here too, but I'm unaware of it.

I must look up the Ernest Scott book, which I didn't know about; isn't the Gutenberg Project great?!