Sumatran Niltava: Niltava sumatrana

During my final semester at Yale, I took for fun an upper-level anthropology seminar called “Himalayan Languages and Cultures.” (Yes, Yale’s the sort of place where they’ll let an undergrad from a different department take a postgrad-level class for no real reason beyond “it sounds cool,” though at the time I gave a more professional justificiation for why they should let me into the class.) This class was amazing — it was taught by Mark Turin, who is a seriously awesome dude — and as such, I get lots of warm fuzzies when I encounter a Himalayan language.


Last week’s bird was the Himalayan Monal, words that come from Sanskrit and Nepali respectively. Which got me wondering — are there any other bird names that come from Nepali?

Turns out the answer is yes — the word “niltava” comes from the Nepali niltau, the local name for the Rufous-bellied Niltava (Niltava sundara). Niltavas are small, colorful, old-world flycatchers, found mostly in southeast Asia. Today’s bird is one of the six species of niltavas, the Sumatran Niltava, Niltava sumatrana.

UntitledSumatran Niltava, Niltava sumatrana (Passeriformes: Muscicapidae). Source: Internet Bird Collection

Sumatra is an island in Indonesia, specifically the large island running northwest to southeast on the western side of Indonesia, just south/southwest of Malaysia and Indonesia. Sumatra is home to a tremendous amount of biodiversity — tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, orangutans, the world’s largest individual flower (Rafflesia arnoldii, aka the “corpse flower”, aka the thing that the Pokemon sequence Oddish/Gloom/Vileplume is based on), the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence (Amorphophallus titanum, titan arum, helpfully also known as the “corpse flower”), etc — though this biodiversity is currently threatened by heavy deforestation. The northern end of Sumatra is Aceh, a semi-autonomous region of Indonesia that is governed under very conservative Islamic law and was the site of years of nasty conflicts between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists. (Aceh is also desperately poor and was decimated by the 2004 tsunami. We’re talking around 170,000 deaths for the region, out of 230,000 deaths total.) (If your brain works like mine, Wikipedia’s lists of deadly natural disasters are fascinating and also very, very sad.)

Rafflesia_sumatraRafflesia arnoldii, via Wikipedia. The genus was named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore who took Java over from the Dutch in 1811. The species name comes from Joseph Arnold, a British surgeon who ended up stranded in what is now Jakarta and took up botany because why not. This Joseph Arnold is not to be confused with the Rhode Islander Joseph Arnold, who has a Wikipedia page because he had a lot of kids in the 1700s.

045VileplumeThe Pokemon “Vileplume.”

Titan-arum1webAmorphophallus titanum. Genus from the Greek άμορφος “amorphos” meaning “amorphous” (literally “without form” — think morphology, morphospace, morph, etc) and φαλλός “phallos” meaning “phallus.” See, Greek is not a hard language. The species name “titan” just means “big,” referring to the Titans, who in ancient Greek mythology preceded the Olympians (the Greek gods we know and love) — think Titanic (a big ship), Titan (the biggest of Saturn’s moons), etc. Titanium, the element, was discovered right after uranium, and in mythology Uranus was the father of the Titans.

The etymology of “Sumatra” seems complicated and politically fraught, so I’m going to say that it’s from the Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) name for the island, Sumatera, and call it a day.

2000px-LocationSumatra.svgThe location of Sumatra, via Wikipedia.

The family name Muscicapidae, referring to the Old World flycatchers, comes from the Latin musca meaning “fly” (the animal, like French mouche, Spanish mosca, possibly Greek μύγαmuga, etc) and the Latin capere, which both means and is the source of “capture” (via French, capturer).


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