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Tuatara: Volume 13, Issue 1, April 1965

Standardising the common name ‘possum’ for Trichosurus Vulpecula

page 30

Standardising the common name ‘possum’ for Trichosurus Vulpecula

InTuatara 12 (3): 155-6, 1964, R. I. Kean described the confusion surrounding the alternative names of ‘opossum’ and ‘possum’ for Trichosurus vulpecula. At first glance this situation may seem inconsequential because no ambiguity is possible if the scientific name is also given. But ‘vernacular’ names of birds and mammals usually have a greater stability than scientific names, and are used by zoologists to a considerable extent. I have placed ‘vernacular’ in quotes because the word implies that a common name is coined by some mead-drinking peasant in the murky past, and arises entirely uncontaminated by scientific research. This might have been true a century ago, but people now identify an animal by referring to books on the subject, most of which are written by zoologists. Zoologists have thus become the originators and arbiters of both scientific and common names. This is inevitable because many birds and mammals have either no true vernacular name or share a name with several other species.

A glance through the scientific papers published on Trichosurus in the last ten years shows that most zoologists (and all Australian zoologists) have used ‘possum’. The reason for this preference is obvious: to use ‘opossum’ for Trichosurus confuses it with Didelphis, and these two genera are as far apart taxonomically as are mice and elephants. ‘Possum’ is common usage in Australia. Mr Kean did not indicate which name he favoured for use in New Zealand but I suggest we conform to international usage. This would standardise the common name and remove the anomaly of two distinct animals sharing one name. In addition, I will be relieved of the embarrassing responsibility of explaining to overseas visitors that we do not have Didelphis in New Zealand (this has happened three times so far) despite what they may have read on the occurrence of the ‘opossum’ in this country.

These views are my own and are not necessarily those of my department.

Graeme Caughley

Forest Research Institute, Rotorua