Biologists have given scientific names to many species, and these names are in Latin. A fraction of all named species was also known in ancient Rome (and medieval Europe), and they had a Latin name as well. By a Latin name I mean a word that would be used to refer to the species in everyday Latin usage.

If scientific names of species come up in a conversation, I often remark that these should not be referred to as "Latin names". They are Latin, yes, but they are not the names for those species in the (non-scientific) Latin language of any era.

The basic difference is that Latin names have generally one word, whereas the scientific name has two words, one for the genus and one for the species. A dog in Latin is canis, not Canis lupus. The expression Canis lupus is silly in Latin (Dog wolf), and so is Allium porrum (Garlic leek, the scientific name of leek). However, in both examples the scientific name contains a proper Latin name.

Can you give me some examples of species that have a Latin name (was preferably known to ancient Romans) but none of its Latin names (if several) matches neither the genus nor the species name in the scientific name? If there are no such species (I would be surprised), which examples would best illustrate the difference between the two kinds of names?

I am not looking for an exhaustive list but examples, preferably from all possible kingdoms (plants, animals and fungi).

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    It might be interesting to note here that technically scientific names of species do not need to be really in latin, they just need to be "latinized" (see articles 11, 26 and 30 of the zoological nomenclature code and article 60 and recommandation 23A for the botanical nomenclature code).
    – plannapus
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 10:45
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    Additionally (and just to nitpick), the original scientific name of the dog is Canis familiaris. It so happened that we discovered it was the same species as the wolf (Canis lupus) whose name had precedence.
    – plannapus
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 10:49
  • @plannapus, I'm aware that some names are just latinized, not properly in Latin. I believe, however, that the species known to non-biologists in ancient and medieval times have more properly Latin scientific names. I chose to leave out some details on taxonomic naming to make the question more focused and easier to read, but you are right, of course. I was unaware of that history of the dog.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 10:56
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    Yes you're right: most species known to europeans prior to Middle Ages were described and named by Linnaeus and his contemporaries and they (at the time) used proper latin (and very occasionally greek) so for the sake of your question we can indeed consider that species name are in Latin. It's just the taxonomist in me that needed to express this caveat when reading "these names are in Latin" :)
    – plannapus
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 11:43
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    To be exact, that probably extends to families, not only species, so e. g. formica would not count? Formica is only one genus of Formicida, but to a non-biologists and Romans equally, any of the Formicida is an ant. Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 2:01

2 Answers 2


Well, I don't know if it counts, but I think you should search among recent species re-classing.

When Linnaeus wrote, Latin names were the logical option to choose a scientific name from. That is why it seems hard to even find one single example of what you're looking for. More recent descriptions of old species (especially when a single common name is found to apply to two different genera) force the need of new names. (i.e., non-common-Latin names for species that were known to native Latin-speakers).

One example is Loxodonta africana, the African elephant. It was in the XVIII century that it was described by Georges Cuvier as a different species from Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant (hence both were probably Elephas in Latin).


Another remarkable example I just noticed a couple of weeks ago is vultures. The name in Latin is vultur, which does not correspond to the scientific name of any bird known to Romans (genera are Gyps, Aegypius and a few more.)

The andean condor —whose scientific name is Vultur gryphus— is sometimes classed as a new world vulture, although these are not taxonomically related to old world vultures. They became known to Europeans in the XVI century and were assigned a scientific name by Linneus in 1758, so here the Latin name was arguably recycled after being out of use.

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    Welcome, and nice answer! I hope you'll stick around and check out some of our other questions and answers. Thanks! Commented May 10, 2016 at 19:36
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    This is indeed a nice answer! Do you happen to know what Loxodonta is supposed to mean? It sounds like a Greek "slant-tooth" to me, but I'm not entirely sure.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 19:57
  • aparently crosswise toothed (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Loxodonta), with the tooth pointing sideways (perseus.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/…). And it's Greek
    – Rafael
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 20:41

Sticking to the bird theme, meleagris used to mean a pheasant. Through a series of misadventures, the genus Meleagris no longer refers to pheasant, but to turkeys, a genus unknown to the ancients.

I hesitate to mention Acacia, since the renaming of that genus is highly controversial (a bit like saying Pluto is not a planet). But some botanists excluded acacia trees from the genus and used it only to refer to a very large Australian genus of plants. That is a very recent development, and it's not clear to me that the renaming will stick.

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