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This Issue of Names

At an early age, my daughter showed a talent for naming cats. She named a white kitten Popso Pep, a stray cat Wizdy, and a tabby Byzantine, aka Busy. Though odd, each name stuck because it fit the character of the cat.

Names help us identify and establish relationships with other beings and things. Well-chosen names enable us to make sense of the world. Sometimes names make little or no sense. They can obscure connections, lead us off track, or give false impressions. How do we choose names? This issue has some telling examples.

We often name by appearance. Hence Necturus maculosus, a muddy-looking salamander, is dubbed a mudpuppy. Progne subis, a swallow with black feathers that glow like purple satin in a certain light, becomes the purple martin. Like flash cards, visual names signal what to look for.

Another kind of tag is needed for a bird too inconspicuous to be described by appearance. When naturalist Alexander Wilson spotted such a warbler on a riverbank in Tennessee, he collected a specimen and gave the species Vermivora peregrina its common name, Tennessee warbler. As our story points out, this is a bit of a misnomer because this species migrates through Tennessee but breeds primarily in Canadian boreal forests and winters in Central American coffee plantations. From his perch in Costa Rica, naturalist Alexander Skutch proposed christening this bird the coffee warbler.

Also somewhat off track is the name of this warbler's summer diet: eastern spruce budworm. Though the larvae of Choristoneura fumiferana eat the needles of most conifers, they prefer balsam fir and do the most damage to spruce trees where they grow among balsams. Thus these insect larvae might just as well be called balsam budworms.

Common names can be ambiguous. Trout, salmon, char, freshwater whitefish, and graylings all belong to the family Salmonidae. Curiously, Minnesota's two native salmonid species with trout names—lake trout and brook trout—belong to the genus Salvelinus and thus could be more precisely called char.

Scientific naming systems help pin down species identification. Nevertheless, Latin names can change if new evolutionary evidence comes to light and leads to shifts in biological classification. For example, scientists originally placed all North American trout in the genus Salmo. As Robert J. Behnke explains in his book Native Trout of Western North America, scientists moved North American trout to the genus Oncorhynchus because they determined these species are more closely associated with Pacific salmon than they are with fish in the Salmo genus.

Our lead story features steelhead, a variety of migratory rainbow trout introduced to Lake Superior and its tributaries. Not only the genus but also the species name of the rainbow trout recently changed. Scientists revised the name after concluding that rainbows native to oceans and rivers of the Pacific Northwest were identical to those native to Kamchatka, Siberia. Behnke explains that mykiss, the species name first given to Kamchatkan trout in 1792, took precedence over gairdneri, the North American trout designation of 1836. Thus the new binomial became Oncorhynchus mykiss.

Apart from science, everyday categorization is simple.In this issue, look for a new story category called Getaways, which will showcase short trips you can take to wild and natural places around the state. The first getaway describes a daylong paddle on a newly opened stretch of suburban Rice Creek.

Also in this issue are the names of people who have supported Minnesota Conservation Volunteer during the past six months with gifts of $50 or more. This list of recent supporters stands for the contributions of all readers. Your donations support our work as we gather stories and pictures and bring them to life on the pages of this magazine and send them to you. This 429th issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer goes out to more than 130,000 individuals and groups in Minnesota, as well as subscribers in every other state and six countries.

Thank you for being a loyal reader and calling this homegrown magazine your own.

Kathleen Weflen, editor
lettertoeditor.dnr@state.mn.us

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