Jamaican Shovellers

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

December 23, 2012

Ever wonder about scientific names? Me too, especially ones that seem easy to translate, but hard to understand. I offer for your consideration, Oxyura jamaicensis, the Ruddy Duck.

Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck, note beginnings of rusty plumage.

When Superstorm Sandy1 blew up the coast at the end of October, it dropped three Ruddy Ducks on a nearby lake. Two were females; the other was a male, not in breeding plumage. They hung around for most of November and half of December, but they have since departed, probably for the estuaries and bays of Maryland and the Carolinas—maybe for the Caribbean.

They may return next spring. Ruddy Ducks often drop in April and the first couple of weeks of May en route to their breeding grounds in the mid-continental prairie potholes. The males in full breeding plumage are quite natty, ruddy—really.

Male Ruddy Duck, loafing.

Male Ruddy Duck, loafing.

So what about that scientific name? The Oxyura (stiff-tailed) part is easy to understand, if not to translate.2 But, jamaicensis? of Jamaica? Why and wherefore?

The story begins with the old doctor from Småland, Carl Nilsson Linnæus, he who revolutionized how we describe the natural world. His approach—binomial nomenclature—was simple, though not original.3

His book, the Systema Naturæ, was a big hit; and he released updated versions—twelve in all—between 1735 and 1768.4

Linnæus’ Systema Naturæ

After his death, the thirteenth, and last, edition was published by a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Gmelin between 1788 and 1793.5

It is Gmelin who introduces us to the Ruddy Duck—but he doesn’t call it a Ruddy Duck.6

Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck female

He calls it Anas Jamaicensis—which roughly translates as the Duck of Jamaica.

Well it’s obviously a duck, but why Jamaica? The simple answer is that Jamaica is where the specimen came from.

There were two great naturalists, both physicians, who visited Jamaica in the 18th Century and returned to Europe just brimming with botanical, zoological, and anthropological news: Patrick Brown and Sir Hans Sloane.

Dr. Patrick Browne came to Jamaica in 1746 and busied himself with producing a study of the place, The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica, published in 1756. If Browne had described the duck in question, it probably would have shown up in Linnæus’ twelfth edition of Systema Naturæ as published in 1768.

Then there is Sloane. In his day, Sir Hans Sloane was one of England’s most influential doctors and naturalists.7

Doctor Sloane personally administered the smallpox vaccine to the English royal family; he also brought back a recipe for a native beverage brewed from the cacao bean. Sloane added milk—an idea that he passed on to a fellow named Cadbury.8

Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate

Truly, a great man.

Sloane lived to be 93, and over that span, he amassed a huge collection of specimens sent from Jamaica and elsewhere, and he bought and incorporated the collections of others. When he finally died in 1753, he bequeathed this agglomeration to the city of London (for £20,000 payable to his daughters), and it became the nucleus of the British Natural History Museum.

Again, had Sloane directly been the source of the description of the duck, it probably would have been included in Linnæus’ twelfth edition (1768). It wasn’t.

Which brings us to yet another physician, Dr. John Latham, who, in 1785, published his General Synopsis of Birds. In the General Synopsis, Latham described, in English, all of the various birds he found in collections throughout England—primarily Hans Sloane’s collection.

Latham described our duck thusly:

Size of the Buffel-headed Duck…general colour of the upper mandible blue…top of the head…black…chin and throat white, mixed with blackish spots…neck is brown…lower part all around, breast, and belly, barred dusky and deep ferruginous…back and scapulars brown…wings and tail plain dusky brown.”9

Ruddy Duck pair.

Jamaican Shovellers

He named it the Jamaican Shoveller, but he did not give it a scientific name—thus, he gets no credit for naming the bird. Poor fellow, he figured it out eventually, and in 1790 he published an Index Ornithologicus with binomial Latin-form names, but he was too late. Gmelin had named the birds two years before; the honors went to Gmelin.

So, here’s what I think happened:

  • The duck was shot in Jamaica, labeled as such, and ended up, unidentified, in Sloane’s extensive collection.
  • Sloane dies (1753); his collection becomes the British Museum of Natural History.
  • Linnæus publishes the 12th edition—sans duck—of Systema Naturæ  (1768), then dies ignorant of Ruddy Ducks (1788).
  • Latham comes along and describes the bird in English in his General Synopsis (1785).
  • Gmelin reads Latham’s description, names it in Latin in the 13th edition of Systema Naturæ (1788-93), and—without ever leaving his office at the University of Göttingen—takes credit for a new species, which he has never even seen.

As to the common name, I think the honors go to Alexander Wilson. In his American Ornithology Wilson described a specimen in Peale’s Museum and called it a Ruddy Duck (Anas rubidus, (reddish duck—makes a lot of sense), declared it to be rare, and declared that it was not the same species as Latham’s Jamaican Shoveller.

Wilson's Ruddy Duck

Alexander Wilson’s Ruddy Duck

The distinction did not last long. Wilson died in 1813. His American Ornithology was published posthumously by Wilson’s friend and fellow ornithologist George Ord in 1829.  In a footnote, Mr. Ord contradicted his dead friend’s appraisal that the Ruddy Duck was not the same as the Jamaican Shoveller.10










  1. Apparently, it is technically incorrect to refer to it as a hurricane, as it was “merely” a tropical storm when it made landfall. This is actually a rather important distinction, I am told, because many insurance policies exclude damage from hurricanes, but not from “storms,” no matter how super. []
  2. Oxys” Greek for stiff and “oura,” Greek for tail. A lot of so-called Latin names are mostly Greek in a Latin form. []
  3. Prior to this, the scientific designations were polynomial: a genus followed either by one word or a phrase to describe the species. The French/Swiss botanists Caspar and Jean Bauhin had started reducing polynomials to binomials about a century ahead of Linnæus. []
  4. By the tenth edition, he must have felt he needed a snappier title, hence: “Systema naturae per regna tria naturae :secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis.” The boys in marketing must have been ecstatic. []
  5. Both Linnæus and Gmelin were medical doctors. Many, if not most, of the early botanists were; botany was their pharmacy, after all. Interestingly, Gmelin’s MD thesis (according to that ne plus ultra, Wikipedia) was titled Irritabilitatem vegetabilium, in singulis plantarum partibus exploratam ulterioribusque experimentis confirmatam, and I bet it was a real page turner. []
  6. As a German, if he had been ahead of his time, Gmelin would have called it a Schwarzkopf-Ruderente (Black-headed red duck).  Ruddy Ducks have been introduced to Europe as accidental releases from seven individuals taken to the UK in 1948. They are considered a threat to the European White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala). See Muñoz-Fuentes V, Green AJ, Sorenson MD, Negro JJ, Vilà C.  “The ruddy duck Oxyura jamaicensis in Europe: natural colonization or human introduction?” Molecular Ecology, 15(6) May 2006. 1441-53. []
  7. My references on Sloane come mostly from a page called “Captivated” on a website of the Jamaica Gleaner, [accessed 22 Dec. 2012]. []
  8. I leave it to my readers to assess the relative merits of chocolate and a healthy nobility. []
  9. George Shaw, General Zoology: vol. 12, part 1, Aves, by James Francis Stephens.(London, 1824). p. 531. Available on line [accessed 12 Dec. 2012]. Mr. Stephens called the poor duck a Jamaica Shoveler (Rhynchaspis Jamaicensis). I have no idea when they stopped capitalizing Latin names of proper places (Jamaicensis vice jamaicensis), but I suspect it took a very important committee several very important meetings to do so. []
  10. Alexander Wilson, American Ornithology: or the Natural History of the Birds of the United States, Vol. 3, (Collins & Co. New York, NY, 1829).  pp. 332-4. []

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