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The Name Game

Sometimes the common name of a species makes perfect sense; the Bald Eagle is one obvious example. But sometimes a name tells us more about the fickle nature of humans than about the creature it describes. Test your knowledge of common names with a special eNature quiz.

Q. What's a daddy-long-legs?

A. It depends on a person's location. In England the term is used to describe a type of spider, usually in the family Pholcidae, common in homes and other buildings. These are the spindly legged spiders often seen hanging in messy webs near ceilings. Americans call them Cellar Spiders.

A daddy-long-legs stateside is another type of arachnid, in the order Opiliones, also known as Harvestmen. These creatures are found outdoors, usually in moist, dark places where they hide during the day. While they look like spiders and have eight legs, they're not spiders.

There's also a type of fly that's referred to as a daddy-long-legs. These insects are more appropriately called crane flies -- a reference to their long legs, similar to those of the birds called cranes. These flies are also known as mosquito hawks or mosquito eaters. And though crane flies resemble mosquitoes, they could never eat one because they lack functional mouth parts as adults.

Q. What's the difference between the Eastern Towhee, the Spotted Towhee, and the Rufous-sided Towhee?

A. Time is the main factor with these bird names. Originally the Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee were considered distinct species. Biologists later decided that these were simply two forms, or subspecies, of a single species, the Rufous-sided Towhee. More recently, though, opinion has swung back, and current field guides again recognize the Eastern Towhee in the East and the Spotted Towhee in the West.

Q: What do the Long-tailed Duck, the Northern Pikeminnow, and the Gray Pine have in common?

A. The common names of these three species have been modified to eliminate terms that were disrespectful to Native Americans. The Long-tailed Duck was formerly known as the Oldsquaw, the Northern Pikeminnow used to be known as the Northern Squawfish, and the Gray Pine was called the Digger Pine, a term applied to several tribes of California natives who dug for edible roots and bulbs.

Q: What's the difference between the Prairie Rattlesnake, the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, and the Great Basin Rattlesnake?

A. These are all forms of a single species, the Western Rattlesnake. Each is a distinct subspecies that occupies a different geographic region. The Western Rattlesnake is also known as the Timber Rattlesnake in the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies -- a misnomer because the true Timber Rattlesnake exists only east of the Rockies. Such is the problem with a lot of folk names or regionalisms.

Q: What's the difference between Steelhead and Rainbow Trout?

A. These two names refer to the same species. Inland versions of the fish that remain in freshwater all their lives are called Rainbow Trout, while coastal forms that migrate to the ocean and return to streams to spawn are called Steelhead.

Even more confusing is the history of the scientific name of the species. Prior to 1989, the fish was officially known as Salmo gairdneri, and now it's Oncorhynchus mykiss. Why? Paleontologists looking at fossil evidence concluded that certain "trout" were actually more like Pacific Salmon, which are in the genus Oncorhynchus. The species name was changed when someone realized that a specimen collected in Asia and named mykiss at the time was actually the same species. Because the name mykiss appeared first, it was then applied to all members of the species.

Confused? You're not alone. But take comfort in the knowledge that no matter where you live or what you call it, the beautiful black, white, and red towhee scuffling in the leaf litter is as fascinating to watch as ever.