A Vocabulary of the Primate World II
Bill Long 3/24/07
These essays on "primate life" are not meant to introduce you to guenons and gelada baboons and talapoins and langurs and colobus monkeys. Instead they are designed to open the world of words by focusing on habitat or diet or other characteristics of these primates which is described in words that the average person doesn't know. In my quest to "learn all the words," then, I am trying to stop and identify words that open worlds for us. Last essay took a long detour on the ungurahui palm. Let's begin this essay on terminology we can define more quickly.
Starting with Two-Word Phrases
Primates are often sexually dichromatic, which means that the male and the female are of different colors. I suppose this helps them identify each other more quickly; humans in general have nearly foolproof means of recognizing the other gender. Well, then we learn that the Golden-headed Lion Tamarin searches "for insects in epiphytic bromeliads" (The Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates, 77). Epiphytic has to do with something that grows on something else. The three words I ran into that talk about living conditions are terrestrial, saxicolous (living in rocks) and epiphytic. The Greek preposition "epi" means "upon," and "phuoo" means to grow. Therefore, just as we know that money grows on trees, we know that the Golden-headed Lion Tamarin eats insects that are in epiphytic bromeliads.
But what is a bromeliad, especially one that grows on something? Well, I was at first excited to learn that the most common bromeliad is the pineapple, but that the term covers a multitude of plants of a startingly great variety. The BSI isn't the Boy Scout International; rather it is the "Bromeliad Society International," and you can learn all that you want about bromeliad taxonomy and characteristics here. Bromeliadae, the family, contains over 3000 described species in approximately 56 genera. Now that would keep you busy for a long day..
Then, I learned that the Aye-aye, the Daubentonia madagascariensis, that most interesting lemur whose middle finger is twice to three times as long as its other fingers, feeds on cerambycid beetles. The OED has no entry for this, but the Unabridged, helpfully, has "a beetle of the family Cerambycidae." But then it gives a longer definition under cerambycidae, which comprise a large family of beetles including long-horned beetles. Some of us may have thought that there were only long-horned cattle in nature. Nope. Pictures of the cerambycid beetles abound online, and we see the distinguishing characteristic of their antennae being longer than the body. So, this led me to several minutes of studying the Coleoptera, the beetles. I learned that there are two suborders of these creatures, the Adephaga and the Polyphaga, as well as about 19 subfamilies and 21 families. The cerambycidae itself has over 290 genera and 1100 species in North America, making it the seventh largest family of beetles. So, there are lots of them for the aye-aye to feed on, I suppose. Many of them are brightly colored, making them a favorite of collectors.
Then, finally, I ran into the phrase relict species. For example, the Beni Titi Monkey (Callicebus olallae) "may be a relict species" (p. 90). This is a species that has survived while others related to it have not. Sad isn't it? Or, it may be a species that once had a wide range but is now found only in particular areas, such as the European white elm in western Siberia. That is just the way life works in nature's impersonal realm.
Single Words from Primate Vocabulary
If two species are sympatric, it means that they share the same "country" or region. The word was first attested in English in 1904 and contrasts with allopatric, which describes organisms that occupy different geographical areas. Something that is conspecific is "of the same species" though perhaps differing as varieties. Conspecifics, then, are members of the same species. From a scientific magazine in 1985 we have: "When they are aroused, the tenrecs weep a white secretion from the angles of their eyes, and the smell of this scented mascara excites conspecifics among these bumbling, hedgehog-like insectivores of the forest floor." A tenrec, so the Collegiate tells us, is "any of numerous small often spiny mammalian insectivores (family Tenrecidae) chiefly of Madagascar."
And so we must take a little detour to the Tenrecidae. This is one of the familes of the Insectivora Order of the Mammalia Class. It now includes 10 genera of extant tenrecids and 24 species. Two subfamilies, the Tenrecinae and Oryzoryctinae are both confined to Madagascar while the Potamogalinae live in west-central Africa. I learned a few more words when I kept reading in this web page. Apparently the tenrecs lack jugals, which pertain to the "zygoma" or the bony arch of the cheek. The word zygoma comes from the Greek and means a yoke or a union of things, so the tenrecs have an "incomplete" zygomatic arch. I think they will thus have a beef with God when the roll is called up yonder, but I can't help them now.
One other thing that I want to mention about these tenrecs concerns their teeth. Their upper molars are zalambdodont except for the African otter shrews, subfamily Potamogalinae, where they are dilambdodont. Well, these aren't words I run into every day, so I had to look 'em up. The Unabridged tells us that zalambdodont is "of or relating to the Zalambdodonta," which is a "division" of the Insectovora comprising the tenrecs. Well, we are getting warm, but we need to know what the word actually means. Well, we see "lambda" in it, the Greek "l." A lambda is wedge-shaped, or "V-shaped." The "za" at the beginning is the intensive prefix, and so a zalambdodont has short molar teeth in a V-shaped ridge. Something dilambdodont is something with two of these V-shaped ridges, and includes some mammals of the northern hemisphere such as the mole and hedgehog. This page on some of the interesting and unique mammals of Madagascar provides a picture of the tenrec, as well as many other mammals.
Well, the fun really is just beginning. I look forward to introducing all these terms to you, and learning them myself, as we try to understand more fully the diversity and beauty of the world. And, as a benefit, we might become better spellers...