Biological taxonomists get to decide on the binomial names of species they are describing. This is a vital contribution, allowing scientists to distinguish what they have in their hands. But to the general public, binomial or Latin names are a big turn-off. Why learn the complex Sitta europaea when you can just call it a Nuthatch? It’s difficult to explain to the layperson that Nuthatches are a whole family, containing about 30 species. Using the full common name ‘European nuthatch’ is a bit more helpful, but again, it’s open to interpretation.
What is more, many common names reoccur repeatedly, not being as well controlled as birds are. For instance, there are two species of red-eyed tree frogs: Agalychnis callidryas, from South America, and Litoria chloris, from Australia. Daddy long-legs is the name given to craneflies in the UK, and Opiliones in the USA. In contrast, scientific names are formulated specifically so that they are neither duplicates, nor likely to be confused with other names.
For this reason, most taxonomists absolutely abhor the use of or formulation of common names for their species. Rhombophryne is such a perfectly sensible name, why do I need a common name for it as well?
The thing is, when the public is turned off by the name, spreading information about the species is a hard task. That makes the job of organisations like the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) rather difficult, as they want to connect the public to the scientists, and work together to protect the species. They actively encourage taxonomists to give their species common names, to facilitate this outreach.
It’s not always easy to come up with common names though. Rhombophryne frogs are brown hoppy/diggy frogs living in the leaflitter of Madagascar’s rainforests. For weeks now I have had the question of finding a nice common name for them in the back of my head, but it has, until now, defeated me. It’s not as easy as you would think.
But actually the whole reason I am making this post is that I have finally found a common name that I like for these dull, brown frogs, which are so easily overlooked and about which so little is known:
Rhombus shapes, parallelograms, are commonly known as ‘diamonds’, after the card suit (the Greek word ρόμβος also means diamond or rhombus in English). It seems befitting that the common name of the shape should be the common name of the frogs. And perhaps it will help them garner the attention they deserve but that has thus far not been given to them.
The values of scientists and those of the public are so often at loggerheads, but this is an area where it is really possible to make the job easier for everyone. While it may be hard enough for us to come up with binomial names, more often than not it is possible to translate those directly into common names. And after all, it is all working toward the goal everyone is striving for: understanding and protecting species.