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Odd Common Names of Mammals – Who are you calling a marmot?!
What's in a name?
As soon as I began taking a graduate course in mammalogy, I never looked at a mouse the same way again. White belly? That’s a Peromyscus. Solid color and running down the hall of the dorm? Gotta be a Mus, and a good reason to live off campus!
What are these funny words in italics? These are the genus names of some very common mouse species. If you want to get really picky, I can go one further to the level of species. Closer study will reveal if that Peromyscus is a Peromyscus leucopus (white-footed mouse) or a Peromyscus maniculatus (deer mouse). A key difference in many a research study. And mammalogy exam.
That binomial nomenclature is so ingrained in my brain at this point that I still use the scientific names without even thinking about it. We weren't even require to learn common names, but miss one double "i" and zero points for you!
If you aren't researching critters, or trying to ace a test, what does it matter which Rattus is which? A rat is a rat, right? And if it is running around in your basement that makes it a pest to boot! Considering Rattus rattus (Black rat) carries the fleas that transmit the plague while its very similar relative Rattus norvegicus (Brown rat) does not, it might matter. At least it did if you were living in 14th Century Europe!
I am sure you noticed that after that italicized nonsense, there is a much more readable name in parentheses. That is the “common name” of the species in question. You might be wondering, why learn that Latinized jargon if there is a common name available in perfectly good English? Black rat. Brown rat. Cooties. No Cooties. What if I told you English rats carry plague? And house rats. Which one is the house rat? BOTH!
Scientific names are standardized. They are 100% unique to a specific organism. Common names are not. A mammal can have more than one common name. Two mammals can share the same common name. What a mess that can lead to! Furthermore the same common names are not used in the same localities or over the same generations.
Should you be concerned if your neigbor sees a whistle-pig in your yard? Would you even know where to look for it? What about a catamount? When you do go to look for it, do you bring a stick or a shotgun?!
Yes. I am exaggerating. For the most part, we all use the same common names, correctly or not (What we call a Dolphin is sometimes a Porpoise), to identify mammals. I don't think anyone will be in danger investigating a pest sighting because they misunderstood their neghbor's jargon.
You can have loads of fun confusing and annoying folks by adopting some of the varied and not-so-common common names below. Even better, switch up what you call something every time you mention it: "Honey, I saw a Peromyscus in the basement. Would you mind setting a trap?" "Did you catch that deer mouse yet? I would hate to have a family of wood mice nesting in the wall". You can use my short list below to get yourself started. And then have fun searching for more!
Some North American* Mammals and Their Common Names
Some of these common names are fairly, well, common and others are a little out there...
Canis latrans - Coyote, American jackal, prairie wolf, brush wolf
Didelphis virginiana - Oppossum, Virginia Oppossum, North American Oppossum, Possum
Felis concolor - Cougar, mountain lion, panther, Florida panther, puma, catamount
Gulo gulo - Wolverine, glutton (gulo is Latin for glutton), stink-bear, little bear, carcajou, quickhatch
Marmota monax - Groundhog, marmot, whistle-pig, land beaver, Punxsutawney Phil (OK I snuck that one in there myself)
Monodon monoceros - Narwhal, Narwhale, white whale, unicorn whale (Medieval Europeans clamed that the tusk was that of a unicorn!)
Mus musculus - Mouse, house mouse, feeder mouse, laboratory mouse, fancy mouse (domesticated)
Peromyscus maniculatus - Deer mouse, wood mouse, woodland deer mouse, prairie deer mouse
Rattus norvegicus - Rat, brown rat, common rat, street rat, sewer rat, house rat, Hanover rat, Norway rat, brown Norway rat, Norwegian rat, or wharf rat
Rattus rattus - Rat, black rat, ship rat, roof rat, house rat, Alexandrine rat, and old English rat (fyi - these guys are the ones that host the fleas that transmit bubonic plague. yikes!)
Trichechus manatus - West Indian manatee, manatee, sea cow, Caribbean manatee, manati, vaca marina, Mermaid (me again! though a few drunken sailors might agree)
*The two species of Rattus are exotic species from Europe and technically not North American mammals, though they have become quite comfortable here. Just ask anyone who has taken the Subway in NYC!