Searching for Answers at the Naturalis Museum Leiden:

Why We use Latin and Greek in the Naming of Species

What is binomial nomenclature, and what does it have to do with the quagga going extinct?

Binomial nomenclature is a scientific naming system used to assign a unique two-part name to each species of organism, consisting of the genus name followed by the species name. 

In Terry Pratchett’s book, “The Science of Discworld II: The Globe”, he develops the wonderful concept of “Pan narrans” as a species that tells stories. Pratchett explores how storytelling and the development of narratives have been a defining characteristic of humanity and have shaped our understanding of the world. At Ludejo we adore this idea. 

As we endeavour to promote some of our favourite museums across the Netherlands, Noëlle, our Social Media Manager, took a trip to Leiden this month to explore the epic Naturalis Museum. This award-winning museum shows the beauty of nature and helps bring vast amounts of scientific information to life. “Through our impressive collection, knowledge and data, we record all life on Earth.” 

While Noelle was at the Naturalis Museum to get a general feel for it and to create a few posts for social media to help promote the museum (check out her “3 Reasons Why You Should Visit…” series on Instagram!), she was asked to get an up close and personal look at the very last quagga. 

What on Earth is a Quagga and Why should I care? 

The story of the quagga is both tragic and typical. The quagga (Equus quagga quagga) is a subspecies of the plains zebra that was endemic to South Africa until it was hunted to extinction in the late 19th century. It was long thought to be a distinct species, but early genetic studies have supported it being a subspecies of the plains zebra.

The scientific name for a quagga is “Equus quagga quagga”. 

Ludejo is a zebra company. What on earth is a zebra company? Well, in recent years, the business landscape has witnessed the emergence of a new breed of companies that prioritise purpose alongside profit. These companies, known as “zebra companies”, strive to balance social impact with financial success, challenging the traditional profit-driven model. The concept of zebra companies emerged as a response to the dominance and “move-fast-and-break-things” mentality of so-called “unicorn” companies*. Have a look here if you want to learn more about zebra companies-insert link). 

During our research on zebra companies for this article, we noted that the scientific name for a zebra is “Equus quagga”. 

This got us thinking as to why all the scientific names in the museum are primarily in Latin or Greek. We turned to our team of linguists for answers. 

What is Binomial Nomenclature and Why do Scientists love it**? 

The use of Latin and Greek in scientific naming, known as binomial nomenclature, was popularised by Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. Latin and Greek were chosen for their widespread use in scholarly works, ensuring universal understanding among scientists worldwide. These classical languages also provide precise descriptions of species’ characteristics and relationships, facilitating clear communication in the emerging field of taxonomy.

Ludejo is a Zebra Company – What’s our Scientific Name?

The zebra received the binomial nomenclature “Equus quagga”. Here is a breakdown of that name: 

  1. Genus (Equus): The genus name “Equus” is a Latin word that broadly refers to horses, donkeys and zebras. This genus encompasses all the species within this group.
  1. Species (quagga): The species name “quagga” specifically refers to the plains zebra, which is one of the species within the Equus genus. The plains zebra is a well-known zebra species characterised by its black and white striped coat.

The choice of “quagga” for this zebra species reflects the historical naming practices of the time. “Quagga” is derived from the Khoikhoi language, an indigenous language of southern Africa, and was used by early European explorers and settlers to describe these animals. It is worth noting that there are several subspecies of zebras within the Equus quagga species, each with distinct characteristics and ranges.

So How do We get from a Zebra to a Quagga?

A zebra, specifically the plains zebra (Equus quagga), is closely related to the quagga (Equus quagga quagga), as both are subspecies within the same species classification.

Here’s how the binomial nomenclature “Equus quagga quagga” breaks down:

  1. Genus (Equus): see zebra above
  1. Species (quagga): see zebra above
  1. Subspecies (quagga): The additional “quagga” in “Equus quagga quagga” indicates a subspecies of the plains zebra. The quagga was a distinct subspecies of the plains zebra with a unique appearance characterised by a more limited stripe pattern compared to other zebras. It had stripes mainly on its head, neck, and the front part of its body, gradually fading into a solid brown colour on its rear half.

The quagga is now extinct but was closely related to the plains zebra, sharing a common species classification. “Equus quagga quagga” specifically identified the quagga as a subspecies within the plains zebra group, highlighting its unique characteristics within the species.

According to the Quagga Project at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, “The name ‘Quagga’ has been spelt in a variety of ways, according to the language in which it is used. Pronounced correctly, the double ‘g’ as a guttural ‘ch’, as in the Scottish word ‘loch’, and with the emphasis on the first syllable. ‘Quagga’ is an imitation of the animal’s call, which it shared with the other plains zebras.” So, the name “quagga” is an onomatopoeia from the sound the quagga makes. When quaggas called, they didn’t neigh or bray; they “Kwah-ga-ha”!

Why is the Quagga at the Naturalis Museum the Last of its Species? 

The quagga at the Naturalis Museum is special. It is generally considered to be the last known quagga to have existed. On the 12th of August 1883, the last quagga died in Amsterdam’s zoo Artis Magistra. It wasn’t immediately evident that this was the last of its kind. Part of the confusion was created using binomial nomenclature. When researchers asked whether or not more quaggas were still in the wild in remote parts of South Africa, there was confusion over whether they were looking for Equus quagga or Equus quagga quagga. There was also confusion about whether they were actually the same species. All in all, it took several decades before it could be confirmed that the quagga was truly extinct. The quagga was driven to the edge of extinction by hunters. However, there is an argument to be made that the confusion caused by binomial nomenclature pushed it over the edge. Perhaps if the quagga and zebra had distinct names (Equus quagga and Equus virgatus*** for example) then things may have worked out differently. Sadly, we will never know.

The Very Last Quagga at Naturalis

The last quagga then ended up at Naturalis via the ARTIS – Groote Museum. Normally this mare is not exhibited due to her vulnerability, but an exception has been made for the 200-year anniversary exhibition. Naturalis owns a second mounted quagga, a stallion from the Cape of Good Hope. 

We asked Noëlle to get a photo of the quagga for this article. Unfortunately, the quagga has returned to storage in the tower at the museum. It is in a rather fragile state and needs to be preserved… which is rather ironic. Or as Terry Pratchett once put it: 

“Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.”

If you want to visit the Naturalis Museum, but a trip to Leiden in the Netherlands isn’t possible at the moment, their virtual museum is fantastic. Please check it out here.

If you want to know more about how Ludejo can help you with your storytelling and cross-cultural communication, please feel free to get in touch. As a zebra company we are only ever as strong as the numbers in our herd! 

*A unicorn company is a privately held startup company with a valuation of over $1 billion.

**While it may be an overgeneralisation to say that all scientists “love” binomial nomenclature, it is widely appreciated and respected within the scientific community for its many advantages.

***The name “Equus virgatus” has absolutely no scientific merit!! The author simply searched for the Latin word for stripey. The options found were: virgatus, varius, and striatus.

Leave a Comment

back to top button