A Desert Tortoise by Any Other Name

It’s the kind of question for which I love to sleuth out a satisfying answer, which is, I suppose, why I love being an editor.

“Is this a Sonoran Desert tortoise, i.e., a tortoise of the Sonoran Desert, or is it a Sonoran desert tortoise, i.e., a desert tortoise of the Sonoran region?”

When you face a question of this type, a biologist who specializes in that species is the person to ask. I turned to the delightful Cristina Jones, who heads the turtles project for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Alert readers may remember her from my “Team Work” post.

In addition to being a smart and thoughtful biologist, Cristina is a word person. She loves questions like this.

“Cecil Schwalbe (my undergraduate and master’s advisor) and Tom Jones, among others, are true sticklers for this very topic,” she wrote me.

“A desert tortoise is a desert tortoise, so only the name of the actual desert region is capitalized (Sonoran desert tortoise, Mojave desert tortoise).” She pointed out that the Sonoran region contains more than just the Sonoran Desert, and the same goes for the Mojave.

“In contrast, the Sonoran Desert toad is a toad (not a desert toad), so both Sonoran and Desert are capitalized. Same for the Yuman Desert fringe-toed lizard, as it is a fringe-toed lizard, not a desert fringe-toed lizard.”

So, now I have not only an answer to the specific question I asked, but also a better understanding of the thinking behind it. That will help me in future situations where a similar question arises. By taking the time to explain the “why” behind her answer, Cristina helped me improve my work. I really appreciated that. When it comes to words, there is always something to learn. And isn’t learning fun?

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