The Natural World

  • Apes are not the same as monkeys. I will die happy if I can banish the heading ‘Monkey business’ on stories about apes (or monkeys, come to that).

    Monkeys branched off the evolutionary tree a long time before apes and humans diverged. The main physical difference between apes and monkeys is that apes do not have tails while almost all monkeys do. These are the only apes: human, gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo (previously called pygmy chimpanzee), orangutan and gibbon.

    Although the so-called Barbary ape, which is found on Gibraltar and in North Africa, has no tail to speak of, it is a monkey, a macaque to be specific.

    Unhelpfully, Monkey World in Wareham, Dorset, which does sterling work providing a home for apes and monkeys and is often a source of stories, actually calls itself the Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre.

    Lemurs are neither apes nor monkeys. They are a group of primates (the order to which apes, monkeys and humans belong) which evolved in Madagascar after it separated from the African mainland. Lorises are another group of primates found in Asia.

    Koalas are not bears. They are marsupials, a group mainly native to Australasia which includes kangaroos, wallabies and wombats.

    All the above are mammals (warm-blooded animals which suckle their young). So are bats and rodents – rabbits, mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels and guinea pigs (two words) – whales, dolphins and porpoises, and seals and sea lions, which are different from each other. Badgers, weasels, ferrets, stoats, mink and polecats are not rodents but mustelids (not a word you often see) and hedgehogs are in another group of their own.

  • reptiles include crocodiles, alligators (there is a difference), tortoises, turtles, terrapins (land, sea and fresh water respectively – note that US terms differ), snakes and lizards. Slow-worms are legless lizards, not snakes. In passing, please don’t use Snakes Alive in every single heading about snakes. It’s so tedious.

  • birds ‘lay’ eggs, they do not ‘give birth’ to eggs. Chicks ‘hatch’, they are not ‘born’. The same applies to all animals which produce eggs (birds, some reptiles, some fish, amphibians, most insects).

  • fish include sharks (but not whales etc, which are mammals, see above). Frogs, toads, newts and salamanders are amphibians. These all start life in water, breathing through gills, and metamorphose into air-breathing adults which spend most of their time on land. Axolotls are juvenile stage Mexican salamanders which do not metamorphose into adults but breed nevertheless, a phenomenon known as neoteny.

  • Crabs, lobsters, prawns and shrimps are all crustaceans. They belong to the world of invertebrates (meaning ‘without a backbone’), such as worms, slugs and insects. Please do not call these small creatures ‘bugs’, ‘mini-beasts’ or ‘creepy crawlies’. This is kindergarten language.

  • insects have six legs. A spider has eight legs and therefore is not an insect. It is an arachnid. So are ticks, which can cause Lyme disease in humans and therefore figure in stories from time to time.

    Insects include butterflies and moths, beetles, flies, ladybirds, bees, wasps, hornets, locusts, grasshoppers, earwigs, fleas, lice (not woodlice, which are crustaceans),dragonflies and ants. An insect in the juvenile stage is called a larva (plural larvae) (unless it has its own name such as caterpillar), not to be confused with lava, which is molten rock.

    All the above are animals, as is anything which is not vegetable or mineral. So it would be wrong to say ‘birds and animals’ or ‘insects and animals’.

    In general animals should be referred to as ‘it’, not he or she, and use ‘which’ not ‘who’. There will be exceptions, but be consistent within the story. In general, I would avoid anthropomorphism (attributing human emotions to animals) like the plague. Equally toe-curling are stories purporting to be written by an animal.

    Most young animals have specific names, such as lamb or tadpole. There are too many to list so if you don’t know the correct one, look it up. Incidentally, the correct word for a young dog is ‘pup’, not ‘puppy’, which is a bit like calling a kitten a ‘kitty’.

  • bacteria and viruses: These are different and are not interchangeable. Look it up if it is relevant to the story. Probably all you need to know is that antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial but not viral infections. Bacteria is the plural of bacterium, so do not put ‘the bacteria is’.

    Examples of viruses include measles, flu and HIV. Examples of bacteria are MRSA, Clostridium difficile or C.diff, TB and legionnaires’ disease. Meningitis and pneumonia have viral and bacterial forms. Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquitoes. It is not a virus or a bacterial infection.

  • poison/venom/toxin: Poison is any substance which can damage a living thing when taken into the body, usually by eating, or when in contact with the skin. Venom is specifically injected into the skin, for example by a snake or a spider. A toxin is a poisonous substance produced biologically rather than chemically; a synthetic one is a toxicant. So a snake is venomous, not poisonous. A poison dart frog, which secretes toxins on its skin, is poisonous because it would cause harm if you touched it, or indeed if you were odd enough to take a bite of it. A laburnum seed is poisonous because it would kill you if you ate it.

  • plants are a lot simpler than animals from the journalistic point of view, as long as you check every single name, English or Latin (see below). Nine times out of ten it will be wrong.

  • Latin names: Every living thing which has been identified has a two-part (or binomial) name, which conventionally is italicised, eg Homo sapiens. The first part is the genus and is capitalised, eg Homo, and the second is the species, eg sapiens, which is lower case, even if it is named after the person who discovered it, eg darwinii. A binomial name may be shortened to the initial cap and the second word, eg H. sapiens, if it is a second reference or part of a list all beginning with the same initial. I think it would be ok not to italicise familiar terms such as C.diff and E.coli. There should be a space between the full point and the second name (E. coli), but perhaps with the coming of the dotcom age, it seems to have become practice to leave out the space. Since this makes it easier to write headings, I suggest sticking to this new (and technically incorrect) style. This is an exception to the rule of not using full points after initials. NB There is occasionally a third Latin name to differentiate between similar species. This should be italic and lower case.

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Last updated October 22, 2017