The other day we watched a juvenile African Harrier Hawk raid a colony of Red-billed Buffalo Weavers. It was both sad and exciting to watch. Sad to watch him pluck tiny chicks out and gobble them up, yet exciting to watch a majestic bird perform a difficult task so efficiently. The way he jumped around the nest, using his wings to balance, reaching with his long legs deep into the various nests..it was awesome! It got me thinking of another animal I had seen on a trip to Brazil: a beautiful fish belonging to the cichlid family. So what does the African Harrier Hawk, a fairly common bird of prey at Londolozi Game Reserve, have in common with a species of South American fish known locally as a Smooth-cheek Earth-eater ?
The African Harrier Hawk
A medium sized omnivorous raptor eating the fruit of some trees as well as hunting vertebrates. Its ability to climb, using wings as well as feet, and its long double-jointed legs, enable this bird to raid the hole nests of weavers for fledglings. It is found in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Smooth-cheek Earth-eater
This is a type of cichlid, roughly 15 cm in length, that is found in southern Brazil and into Uruguay. It lives in slow flowing streams. Its small size, together with it’s natural colouration and beauty has meant that over the years it has become a popular member of the pet trade. Aquariums, worldwide, boast healthy collections of these magnificent fish.
Mere descriptions of the two, however, reveal nothing about the supposed similarity of which I speak…
The answer lies in Etymology
Now don’t be too alarmed if you are not familiar with this word, and no I have not made a spelling mistake!
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.
To reveal this secret you need to think back, long and hard, to the days of school, sitting in the back row of your foreign language classes. Trying desperately to scrape through Greek and Latin with minimum effort.
The latin name for the Smooth-cheek Earth-eater is Gymnogeophagus gymnogenys. Now when one breaks this word up you will find that Gymnos is the greek for ‘naked’ or ‘bare’, geo relates to the ‘earth’ and phaegein means ‘to eat’. A very descriptive name for a fish that explains exactly what it does…a naked/bare fish that likes to eat sand and earth.
The African Harrier Hawk has a latin name of Polyboroides typus. This was, however, not always its assigned name. If one goes back in the record books you will find that at one stage it was classified, with a genus name, of Gymnogenys. The word Gymnogenys comes from the modern latin and literally means ‘bare-chinned or bare-cheeked’. Hence the reason that many of you will know this bird as a Gymnogene.
So after all of that I can conclude that the commonality of these two contrasting species is that both animals are naked or rather ‘gymnos’ in some form or another.
Written by Adam Bannister
Photography by Mike Sutherland
Filed under Wildlife
Interesting article! Terrific scientific content Adam, keep up the good work. Good photos of the action aswell by Mike.
Thanks for the interesting photography and article.
Bird names confound me! We have English names, Afrikaans names, Latin names and indigenous tribe names for every bird. I wouldn’t even attempt pronouncing “Gymnogeophagus gymnogenys.”
Thank you for the great pictures. I love raptors.
Thank you Adam. I love learning about names and what they mean. Martin, the Greek and Latin names are easy as they are pronounced exactly the way they look, if you know how to use phonics. Gymnogeophagus = Gym no geo (short o) ph(f) agus.. Easy right? HaHaHa
Well written Ad and great pics Mike, hope to see more from you. rich