… or for Americans Ass Feet. If you were a torpedo, a ship or a foot propelled diver having the means of propulsion at the rear end has its advantages.
The Great Crested Grebe rejoices in the scientific name Podiceps cristatus … Latin for Crested Arse-foot. Along with the other grebes they are in the Family Podicepididae and the Order Podicepidiformes all celebrating the location of their feet … I did say rejoice.
Penguins are wing propelled divers and one group, the stiff tails, are united in the genus Pygoscelis. If the grebes speak Latin among themselves then the stiff tails speak Greek. You guessed it – Arse-feet. The penguins so blessed are the Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo.
Gentoo, that’s an odd name for a penguin. I’ll come back to it.
Meanwhile, having your feet back there is not without disadvantage for the grebes. They are hopeless on land. The Great Crested Grebe nests at the water’s edge often on a floating mat of reeds tethered to standing reeds. They have freedom in the water and in the air but have surrendered their access to land. Ducks and swans have taken a different evolutionary journey. So have the penguins.
Penguins have surrendered their power of flight. In air that is. Their wings are adapted to flight in water a medium that is 784 times more dense than air (at sea level … such precision!). You can’t do both (which is what my mother said when I told her I wanted to be a musician when I grew up). They (penguins not musicians) need to come ashore to nest. Having their feet where they are enables upright bipedalism and, since they are webbed, they act in the same way as the elevators on the tail plane of fixed wing aircraft. Their feet have ended up in a similar location to the grebes but for quite different reasons and there seems little downside to the arrangement.
Back to the Gentoo, Pygoscelis papua. The scientific name is more easily explained than the common name. A French naturalist, Pierre Sonnerat (1748 – 1814), claimed to have discovered it in new Guinea. Neither he nor the penguin having ever been to New Guinea this seems unlikely.
In Voyage à la Nouvelle-Guinée (1776) Sonnerat details an expedition to the Spice Islands and New Guinea made in 1771. Some of which is pure fiction. The book though, contains good illustrations of three different penguins and the Laughing Kookaburra all signed with his name. The penguins are readily identifiable as the Emperor, King and Gentoo. None of these birds occur in New Guinea.
It seems that he was given the skins of these birds by Sir Joseph Banks at the Cape of Good Hope to pass on to fellow naturalist Dr Philibert Commerson in Mauritius. He duly delivered them to Commerson’s illustrator, Paul Philippe Sanguin de Jossigny who made drawings of them. Poor de Jossigny died unexpectedly. Sonnerat took the opportunity to take the drawings, sign them and pass them off as his own.
When I arrived in Australia the Laughing Kookaburra was rather evocatively called Dacelo gigas but older Scientific names take precedence. So now we have Pygoscelis papua and Dacelo novaeguineae both named after places where they have never been found.
Gentoo is a word that has fallen out of common use it was formerly synonymous with Hindu. Australian Bird Names – A Complete Guide, by Fraser and Gray (CSIRO) suggests that the link between Hindus and the penguin “will remain one of the great mysteries of the universe“. Perhaps the head pattern reminded someone of a turban.