Some Common Suffixes

Part III in a VI part series

21 Patrons & Counting!!

Woohoo! We did it, we reached our first goal on Patreon! We’re now up to 21 patrons and counting. As a thank you, I’ve crafted a longer series on the seemingly impenetrable thicket of scientific names. So if you’ve ever struggled to remember Glaucomys volans or Lithobates sylvaticus, or if you’ve wondered what they heck those names mean, then you’re in luck. Of course, if you want to skip the details and jump right to translation, check out my dictionary of the scientific names: An Etymology of Vermont Vertebrates, which covers all of Vermont’s vertebrates. Otherwise follow along and learn how things are named and how to interpret what their names mean.

Some Common Suffixes

Each species has a binomial made up of the generic name and a specific epithet. Both are written in italics and the first letter of the genus is always capitalized. We are, for example, Homo sapiens (Homo is the generic name, sapiens the specific epithet). Scientific names are often Latinized roots from other languages, though most of the root words are derived from either Greek or Latin. About 25% of English is made up of Greek words, so you should already be familiar with many of the roots in scientific names (e.g. crypto is Greek for hidden, boreal for north, rhino for nose, etc). Scientific names are often combinations of different root words fused into a novel word, which can make it tricky to tease out what the roots of a name are. There are also a number of suffixes that repeat themselves frequently, so getting to know these is helpful. Books like Donald Borror’s Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms are tremendously valuable when trying to translate scientific names. So is my own Dictionary of Scientific Names spreadsheet!

We’ll start with the end and end with the start. The more you look at scientific names, the more you start to see the same suffixes repeated over and over. Like in English, a suffix can denote possession, make a noun an adjective, denote a relative quality, like larger or smaller, etc. So too in Latin! The link below will take you to a glossary of the most common suffixes you’ll encounter. Otherwise, read on…

Canada goose, Branta canadensis

Place Name Suffixes

Suffixes that denote place names often reference the location where the species was first described, but don’t necessarily reflect a restriction on their overall range. Because many of the early botanists and zoologists were working in the first colonies, you find lots of species with variations on Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, e.g.). Suffixes also frequently reference the habitat in which that species is found.

  • -ALIS: pertaining to
    • nivalis = of the snow (e.g. Snow bunting, Plectrophenax nivalis)
    • hyemalis = of the winter (e.g. Dark-eyed junco, Junco hyemalis)
  • -ANA/um/us, -ICA/um/us, -INA/um/us: of a geographic region
    • carolina = from the Carolina colonies (e.g. Red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus)
    • pennsylvanica = from Pennsylvania (e.g. Chestnut-sided warbler, Setophaga pensylvanica)
    • virginianus = from Virginia (e.g. Northern bobwhite, Colinus virginianus)
  • -COLA, -COLUS: of a habitat
    • limicola = of a muddy or slimy place (e.g. Virginia rail, Rallus limicola)
    • rusticolus = of a rural area (e.g. Gyrfalcon, Falco rusticolus)
  • -ENSE, -ENSIS: of a geographic region
    • canadensis = of Canada (e.g. Canada goose, Branta canadensis)
  • -ESTRIS, -STRIS: of a habitat
    • alpestris = of the high mountains (e.g. Horned lark, Eremophila alpestris)
    • palustris = of the swamp, marsh (e.g. Pickerel frog, Lithobates palustris, American water shrew, Sorex palustris)
    • rupestris = of the rocks (e.g. Rock bass, Ambloplites rupestris)
  • -INUS: of a habitat
    • marinus = of the sea (e.g. Great black-backed gull, Larus marinus)

Spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum

“Pertaining to” Suffixes

The most common type of suffix denotes that a species has some specific feature (e.g. spikes, claws, a crest, spots, etc), or that the quality pertains to that species (e.g. is soft, is red). These can often be used similarly to place suffixes, as with -alis (e.g. borealis: of the north, occidentalis: of the west)

  • -ACA, -ACUM, -ACUS: resembling, pertaining to
    • grammacus = having a line (e.g. Lark sparrow, Chondestes grammacus)
  • -ATA, -ATUM, -ATUS: having, provided with
    • guttata = having spots (e.g. Spotted turtle, Clemmys guttata)
    • maculatum = having spots (e.g. Spotted salamander = Ambystoma maculatum)
    • cucullatus = having a hood (e.g. Hooded merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus)
  • -IFER: bearer of
    • crucifer = bearing a cross (e.g. Spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer)
  • -OSUS, OUS: full of, having
    • lentiginosus = having freckles (e.g. American bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus)
  • -EA, -EUM, EUS: having the quality of, resembling
    • scolopaceus = resembling a snipe (e.g. Long-billed dowitcher, Limnodromus scolopaceus)
    • olivaceous = being olive in color (e.g. Red-eyed vireo, Vireo olivaceus)
  • -ORIA, -ORIUM, -ORIUS: pertaining to, connected to
    • alnorum = connected to alders (e.g. Alder flycatcher, Empidonax alnorum)
  • -ALE, -ALIS: resembling, pertaining to, having the nature of
    • sirtalis = having a garland (e.g. Common gartersnake, Thamnophis sirtalis)
    • cardinalis = being red, being like a cardinal with that red crest (e.g. Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis)

A common gallinule, Gallinula galeata (Boynton Beach, FL)

Relative Suffixes

These suffixes are comparative, their attachment to a name indicating its qualities relative to other species. It might refer to the overall body size being smaller or larger than a similar species or it might note that a feature of that species is relatively small or large. It could also indicate that the species resembles another species or that it is the superlative or most “something” (e.g. softest).

  • -CULA/um/us: diminutive
    • fratercula = little friar (e.g. Atlantic puffin, Fratercula arctica)
  • -ELLA/um/us, -ILLA/um, -ULA/um: diminutive
    • falcinellus = little sickle (e.g. Glossy ibis, Plegadis falcinellus)
    • Spizella = little finch (e.g. chipping sparrows, Spizella passerina)
    • gallinula = little chicken (e.g. Common gallinule, Gallinula galeata)
  • -ISSIMA: superlative ending
    • sapidissima = tastiest (e.g. American shad, Alosa sapidissima)
    • mollisima = softest (e.g. Common eider, Somateria mollissima)
  • -ODES: similar to
    • myodes = mouse-like (e.g. Southern red-backed vole, Myodes gapperi)

DeKay’s brownsnake, Storeria dekayi, named after American zoologist, James DeKay (1792-1851)

Possessive Suffixes

These suffixes are for patronyms and matronyms, or rather for species that are named after a man or a woman (though sadly there are far fewer species named after women). It’d be the equivalent of Teage’s bandicoot. These suffixes can be used to form the possessive of habitat.

  • -AE: matronym, feminine possessive
    • vogelae = matronymic of Bea Vogel, an arachnologist (e.g. wolf spider, Pardosa vogelae)
  • -ARUM: feminine possessive, of a place
    • palmarum = of the palms (e.g. Palm warbler, Setophaga palmarum)
  • -I, -II: patronym, masculine possessive
    • cooperii = patronymic of American zoologist, William Cooper (1798-1864) (e.g. Cooper’s hawk, Accipiter cooperii)

There are many more suffixes than those listed above, and you’ll find a more complete list in the dictionary. I’ve used examples from animals, but the same information holds true for plants as well. Good luck out there translating your favorite scientific names!


  1. An Etymology of Vermont Vertebrates by yours truly
  2. Borror’s Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (pdf)
  3. Yoon’s Naming Nature
  4. Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names (free online)
  5. A good overview of the process for naming a new species (link)

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