More on Pseudogryps

An early post to this blog explained the blog’s name. To summarize that older post, Pseudogryps is not a scientific name that was ever formally applied to the California condor or any other species. Rather, Pseudogryps was set out by Elliott Coues to explain why he considered Pseudogryphus, a name that was formally applied to the California condor, to be “flawed”. The flaw was that Pseudogryphus mixed the Greek pseudo with the Latin gryphus. Coues’s Pseudogryps had the same meaning as Pseudogryphus, but Pseudogryps was “pure” Greek.

In this post, I dig deeper into Pseudogryps and Pseudogryphus.

To begin, it should be noted that some scientists are obsessed by names and naming living organisms. This has long been the case.

Consequently, there are now well-established rules for assigning scientific names. But the rules do not prohibit mixing Greek and Latin words, or mixing words from any other languages. Of course, this has not stopped criticism of “hybrid” names that mix languages.

Such criticism even goes beyond the names of organisms. Last year (22 November 2016), the New York Times carried an obituary for Whitney Smith, a vexillologist, or expert in the study of flags. Smith turned a boyhood interest into a career of researching and designing flags.

Here’s the part of Smith’s obituary that is relevant to this discussion:

At 18, deciding that the study of flags deserved its own name, he coined the term vexillology, combining the Latin word for flag, “vexillum,” with the Greek suffix meaning “the study of.” “I’ve been criticized because it combines Latin and Greek, a barbarism,” he told Smithsonian, but I say, ‘I was a teenager!’”

Many scientific names for organisms fuse languages and these names will be with us for a long time. The purists have lost.

The development of clear scientific names for vultures has not been helped by those who see vultures as griffins. Griffins are creatures of legend, with the head of a lion and the wings of an eagle. The Greek word for the griffin is gryps and the Latin is gryphus.

Now, consider that the Greek word for vulture is gyps and the Latin word is vultur.

So the current scientific name for the Andean condor is the pure-Latin Vultur gryphus. But this translates into English as “griffin vulture”, which is a confusing when taken literally (an amalgamation of a lion, eagle, and a vulture?). To make matters worse, “griffon vulture” is an English name for Gyps fulvus, a vulture of Africa and Eurasia.

The one-time scientific name for the California condor, Pseudogryphus californianus, means the “false griffin of California”. This at least disputes the association between the mythical griffin and a real vulture. Today the scientific name for the California condor is Gymnogyps californianus. Gymnogyps is all Greek and means “naked vulture”. This name is entirely appropriate as the head of the California condor is nearly bare of feathers and condors are New World vultures.

In the past, some vultures of the Old World were given the scientific name Pseudogyps or “false vultures”. Pseudogyps has since been replaced by the more accurate Gyps. These birds are, after all, Old World vultures.

Given the similarity of the Greek gyps for vulture and gryps for griffin, it is not surprising that errors are made. For example, the index of Burma by Max and Bertha Ferrars (published in 1900 by Sampson Low, Marston) refers to Pseudogryps bengalensis. This species is now named Gyps bengalensis. Likewise, “Dunes of the Namib”, published in the Spring 1990 issue of Environmental Conservation, refers to Pseudogryps africanus. This should be Gyps africanus.

Perhaps all this confusion could have been avoided if scientific namers, beginning with Linnaeus in the 18th century, were familiar with the work of William Turner. According to James Jobling, Turner wrote the following in his Avium Praecipuarum in 1544 (!):

Quite wrongly certain scholars call the Vulture Gryps, confounding foolishly the Vulture and the Gryps, since the Gryps is a Gryphon, or an animal believed to be both winged and quadruped.

If you happen across a species named Pseudogryps, be aware that you have found an error. Pseudogryps is just the name of a blog.

For more on the name Pseudogryps, see the previous post: Why Pseudogryps?

Jobling, James. The Helm dictionary of scientific bird names. Christopher Helm. 2010.