Places & Habitats

Part V 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.

New England aster, Aster novae-angliae

For each place, a name

When early naturalists came to the Americas, they radiated from the first colonies out over the landscape. They encountered and described species first in the Carolinas, the Virginias, Florida, Pennsylvania, and for many of the French naturalists, the hinterlands in Canada. These explorers left in their wake a plethora of species with names anchored in these places (though these species had ranges that spilled far beyond the areas for which they were named):

  • Sciurus carolinensis (eastern gray squirrel)
  • Odocoileus virginiana (white-tailed deer)
  • Acer pensylvanicum (striped maple)
  • Betula alleghaniensis (yellow birch)
  • Castor canadensis (American beaver)
  • Thuja occidentalis (northern white cedar)
  • Sylvilagus floridanus (eastern cottontail).

Usually the place names are the specific epithet, acting as an adjective that describes the genus. So Sciurus carolinensis is the tree squirrel who lives in the Carolinas. Because the place names are familiar to us, these are relatively early to spot and then translate. Those species named for a habitats can be a bit trickier, though you’re likely familiar with many of the roots so don’t despair!

Wood frog, Lithobates sylvaticus

Rood words for habitats

When naturalists weren’t name species for living in geographic regions, they were looking for patterns in where species were distributed by habitat (forests, swamps) or features of a habitat (rocks, trees, snow). Because many of these new species had affinities to Old World species or were being classified in the same family or genus of Old World species, North American species were named relative to those in the Old World (e.g. occidentalis, or of the west). Here are a few of the common suffixes used when the scientific name refers to a habitat, place, or location:

  • alis (pertaining to)
  • cola (dwells in)
  • phila (loving)
  • stris (pertaining to)
Body Part Root words found in the scientific name Examples
nivis (L)
pagos (G)
glacia (L)
Snow bunting, Plectrophenax nivalis
Ivory gull, Pagophila eburnea
Northern fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis
Lake, marsh
Sea, ocean
hydro (G)
palu (L)
ripa (L)
pelagius (G)
halio (G)
marin (L)
oceana (G)
Caspian tern, Hydroprogne caspia
Short-billed dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus
Marsh wren, Cistothorus palustris
Bank swallow, Riparia riparia
Chimney swift, Chaetura pelagica
Osprey, Pandion haliaetus
Sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus
Wilson’s storm-petrel, Oceanites oceanicus
sylva (L)
hylo (G)
Wood frog, Lithobates sylvaticus
Wood thrush, Hylocichla mustelina
oros (G)
petro (G)
rupes (L)
litho (G)
Horned lark, Eremophila alpestris
Tennessee warbler, Oreothlypis peregrina
Cliff swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Rock bass, Ambloplites rupestris
Pickerel frog, Lithobates palustris
Earth geo (G) Mourning warbler, Geothlypis philadelphia
Mud limi (L) Central mudminnow, Umbra limi
  ammos (G)
eremos (G)
arena (L)
Grasshopper sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum
Horned lark, Eremophila alpestris
Ruddy turnstone, Arenaria interpres

Northern hackberry, Celtis occidentalis

Cardinal Directions

Color Scientific Name Examples
North artica (G)
boreal (G)
Atlantic puffin, Fratercula arctica
Northern shrike, Lanius borealis
South austral Mediterranean hackberry, Celtis australis
East oriental Old World sycamore, Platanus orientalis
West occidental Northern hackberry, Celtis occidentalis
American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis

Dark-eyed junco, Junco hyemalis

The Seasons

Color Scientific Name Examples
Winter hiem (L) Long-tailed duck, Clangula hyemalis
Spring verna (L) Smooth greensnake, Opheodrys vernalis
Summer aestis (L) Blueback herring, Alosa aestivalis
Fall oporo (G) Connecticut warbler, Oporornis agilis


  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)

Digging all this natural history content?

Become a monthly supporter on Patreon.

Be sure to check the archives for back issues.
And shoot me an email if you have an idea for a future blog post, newsletter issue, or podcast episode!

Subscribe to the Newsletter