12 scientific names

The California condor has not always been called by that name. In the 19th century, the common name assigned to this bird was typically some form of “vulture”.

Perhaps surprisingly, the scientific name for the California condor has also changed – and it has changed more often than the common name. In this post I list and briefly explain 12 of the scientific, latinate names given to the species we now know as the California condor.

1. Vultur californianus was the first scientific name for the bird species now called (in English) the California condor. George Shaw published this scientific name in 1797 after examining a museum specimen in London. As recently as 1970 some scientists considered Vultur californianus to be the correct name for the California condor.

2. Vultur harpyia variety: monstruosa might have been the California condor’s first scientific name. While exploring California, José Longinos Martínez saw birds that may have been condors and included his chosen name for them with a letter dated 1792. But Longinos’s prospective California condor specimen was lost.

3. Vultur columbianus was the scientific name given to the “beatifull Buzzard of the columbia”, the large vulture encountered along the Columbia River by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. At the time, some thought that this bird was different than the similar bird found in California. Alas, North America has just one species of large vulture, the California condor.

4. Cathartes vulturinus means “vulture-like cleanser”. This name lives on, in part, in the current scientific name for the turkey vulture, Cathartes aura.

5. Catharista californiana (say it aloud!) was the appealing appellation assigned by George Robert Gray. In addition to examining museum specimens, Gray probably saw the living California condor that was presented to the Zoological Society of London in 1866.

6. Œnops californiana was later spelled Oenops californiana and Onops californiana. One of these spellings (it is not clear which) is handwritten on the tag currently attached to the California condor specimen that Shaw studied over 200 years ago.

7. Gryphus californianus refers to the mythical griffin. The griffin also features in Vultur gryphus, the first and current scientific name for the Andean condor.

8. Pseudogryphus californianus drew a protest from Elliott Coues, who wrote in 1882 that Pseudogryphus was “badly formed in two languages” (Greek and Latin). Nevertheless, as recently as 1938 some scientists considered Pseudogryphus californianus to be the correct name for the California condor.

9. Rhinogryphus californianus (another Greek-Latin hybrid) refers to the nose. This scientific name highlights the California condor’s distinctive nostrils, a trait shared by all species in the family Cathartidae, the New World vultures.

10. Sarcoramphos californica lives on, in part and with a different spelling, in the current scientific name for the New World’s king vulture, Sarcoramphus papa.

11. Otogyps californicus first appeared in an 1897 report by the Zoological Society of Philadelphia. Unlike the other names enumerated here, Otogyps californicus is not found in later publications that catalog the former scientific names of the California condor.

12. Gymnogyps californianus first appeared in an 1842 article by René Primevère Lesson. But 19th-century ornithologists overlooked this publication. In 1901, Charles W. Richmond called attention to Lesson’s article and argued that, according to the rules by which scientific names are established, Lesson’s chosen name had “priority”. Thus, Gymnogyps californianus is the current scientific name for the wonderful and endangered California condor (of course, the scientific name could change again). While the birds called Gymnogyps californianus are much more than their names, the scientific names listed above – and all the other names given to these birds through time – are essential elements in the story of the relationship between humans and California condors.

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