The word taxonomy is derived from two Greek root words. “Taxis” means “arrangement” and the word “nomis” means “method.” Thus taxonomy is the arrangement of biological organisms in groups or subgroups based on similar characteristics. For example, hawks are in a family of birds called Buteonidae. All hawks from the massive martial eagle of the African savanna to the diminutive tiny hawk found in South American rain forest have many of the same characteristics. Prominent among them among them is the presence of a hooked beak used for tearing the flesh from their prey, and elongated, super sharp toes (called talons) used to capture and hold its prey while killing it. Those two characteristics separate hawks and eagles from, say, herons or cranes or sandpipers so biologists have arranged all hawks and eagles and placed them in the same biological arrangement called a family.
At the broadest level there are categories of biological arrangement from the broadest to the most narrow:
The principles of taxonomy are not restricted to birds. One of the most useful and informative classes I ever took in college was Plant Taxonomy. In it I learned how to tell one family of plants from another and how to differentiate similar looking species in each plant family. It was accomplished by comparing flowers and flower parts and leaves and stems. The same process can be used for fish or snakes or any other living organism.
Most organisms on earth have names by which they are commonly known such as Dickinson’s falcon or white-eyed vireo or pink lady-slipper. Common names are helpful in knowing one species from another. However what happens if someone in Europe decides to name a species of loon the great northern diver while in North America someone calls the same species common loon. Taxonomists have eliminated the potential confusion by giving every organism a scientific name which is made up of the genus and the species names in the larger hierarchy mentioned before. Thus, the great northern diver is Gavia immer just as the common loon is Gavia immer. No matter where an organism is on earth, its common name doesn’t really matter if it has the same scientific name.
The mammal family Bovidae is a group of large mammals that includes American bison, African buffalo, water buffalo, antelopes, gazelles, sheep, goats, musk ox and domestic cattle. At least taxonomically all the bovines could be considered to be “cows.” Once at the end of a staff meeting in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Grand Island, Nebraska, Bob McCue our Field Supervisor, asked if anyone had any more questions before he wrapped up the meeting. Having been perplexed by a nonsensical issue for some time I asked this group of biologists, “a cow is a female what?” After all, Bob had asked if anyone had any questions.
Kenny Dinan replied saying “A cow is a female bull.”
“It is,” I asked in return. “Does that mean that a bull is a male cow?” Put that way the classification of a cow being a female male didn’t make much sense.
A debate ensued with someone else saying that a cow was a female cattle. Cattle is a collective word for a group of cows or bulls. For instance, the trucks used to transport them to market are not called cow trucks or bull trucks they are called cattle trucks.
The spirited debate continued for than twenty minutes. It was a fine display of wisely using taxpayer funds to cover our salaries. The debate finally ended when Tim Fannin, the only PhD in the office said authoritatively that “A cow is a female bovine just like a bull is a male bovine.” That was enough to convince me.
Not long after leaving Punda Maria camp in northern Kruger National Park a group of four African buffalo sauntered across the road in front of me. As I pulled up beside them for a closer view I could not help noticing their very bovine-like odor reminiscent of domestic bovines on northern Wisconsin farm land. The thick plate that makes up the central portion of an African buffalo’s massive horns is called the boss. I remember walking in the early morning light among the pastures on my grandfather’s farm when he and I were gathering up the cattle to herd them to the barn for their morning milking. As we walked through those fields my grandfather would call out “come boss” as a way of getting the cattle to follow us to the barn. Regularly several of the cows would walk up and place their wet dripping noses in my hand almost begging to have their face scratched.
The scientific name of domesticated bovines is Bos domesticus or domestic bovine. I am certain that my grandfather, a northern Wisconsin farmer with a third grade education did not know the scientific name of his cattle. However he called them “boss” which sounded like their genus name and like that part of an African buffalo’s horns.
Herds of twenty to two hundred African buffalo dotted the savanna as I moved south through Kruger. Occasionally they were seen lying down under trees to escape the scorching sun, but mostly these herds were on the move, chewing dried grasses and scarifying the earth with their hooves. And as they did they gave off an odor just like my grandfather’s cows did ages ago in northern Wisconsin.
One herd crossing the road in front of me was made up of about two hundred individuals. Included in the herd was one utterly massive male who was likely the dominant honcho of this herd. This bull was at least five feet tall and probably weighed 1,500 pounds. His muscles had muscles on their muscles. His back was adorned with a small flock of yellow-billed oxpeckers each working frantically to eat ticks and lice from the bull’s skin. As I watched in awe of this massive creature it snorted once and then took several steps toward me.
Once while conducting a breeding bird census on a patch of native prairie in central Montana I crested a small hill and encountered a herd of Hereford cattle grazing the prairie grasses at the base of the hill. As I watched them I saw a large bull begin to stare me down as he stepped away from the herd. He snorted once and then snot and slobber poured from his nose and mouth as his face foamed like a rabid dog. This bovine bull then scraped the earth with its right front foot and broke into a trot across the prairie directly at me. I turned and ran toward a nearby fence with the bull in hot pursuit. Reaching it with the bull closing in I put my left hand on the top of a wooden fence post and vaulted over the barbed wire fence to the relative safety of the other side. The bull charged up to the fence and then luckily stopped its charge. With his face still foaming he snorted again, turned, and walked away. I thought of that Montana Hereford bull as this South African buffalo started to size me up.
Curious about me the male slowly walked toward me as I cowered in my car. On several occasions I considered starting the car and escaping. Even though I was supposedly safe inside the car I had seen pictures and heard stories of African buffalo and rhinoceros charging and attacking vehicles in Kruger National Park. I didn’t want to be a statistic however at the same time I also didn’t want to lose out on learning about this buffalo.
I became more and more nervous the closer the bull advanced. Occasionally he would stop his movement, sniff and test the air, look back, and then stand and stare at me. After maybe fifteen minutes of moving a few feet and stopping and then moving again he was less than five feet from my car. He simply continued his slow and deliberate move toward me. By now I had rolled up the window on the driver’s side. Considering the mass of the animal there was no way I was protected by a thin film of glass. The bull took two more steps toward me and placed its nose on the window next to my face.
On entering Kruger National Park all visitors are given a list of rules that must be adhered to for their own safety. Paramount among them is that under no circumstances is anyone allowed out of their vehicle except in the gated and fenced rest camps and at a few other select areas throughout the park. Additionally nobody is allowed to have any part of their body protruding from the car. Earlier that morning I saw a blatant violation of this rule. A group of six young adults decided to hang from the side of a large van as it approached a group of elephants by the side of the road. Luckily for them the elephants were not provoked but it would have been nobody’s fault but their own had there been an incident. I considered those rules as 1,500 pounds of pure bovine muscle sniffed the glass just inches from my face.
Satisfied with his olfactory explorations the buffalo removed his nose from my window and took a few steps back. He then turned and trotted back to his herd. As he did I wondered about the meaning of the encounter. Had he been enraged he could have easily trampled the car with me in it. At a minimum the tip of one or both of his massive horns could have crashed through my window and likely gored me. However none of that happened. Instead and for whatever reason I believe he was just curious about me and sought to check me out. Being color blind there was no way he was attracted to the color of my car or to the drab olive green of my shirt. I certainly didn’t smell like anything that could have been dangerous to him (like a lion or leopard) because I had showered just a few hours earlier and had on clean clothes. However this massive bull was overly curious and wanted to stare down this thing in a car that was staring him down.
Known as the “black death” and the “widow maker,” African buffalo are suspected of goring and killing up to two hundred people in Africa each year. Hunters, some of them willing to pay up to $10,000 for the chance to shoot an African buffalo, consider this species to be very dangerous because wounded buffalo are known to ambush and attack those that hunt them. Turnabout I guess is fair play.
However on a blindingly clear and sunny day in the thorn veld of South Africa a massive male, the size of an Angus bull, decided he wanted to check me out. And as he did all I saw was one of my grandfather’s Guernsey cows nuzzling me with her wet sloppy nose as I walked her back to the barn.