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1 May 2006 English Common Names for Subspecies and Species of African Primates
Peter Grubb
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Approximately 1,000 English-language names have been used for African primates. Grubb et al. (2003) chose a single common name for each species (with a few exceptions) and for each subspecies. The present paper provides the opportunity to compare these preferred names with others published in the literature. The aim is to encourage primatologists to evaluate the choice of names, to assess the principles adopted in compiling the selective list, to amend this list where they see fit, preferably in appropriate publications, and to comment on the whole exercise.


This paper lists published English-language common names for species and subspecies of African primates in a systematic format. The aim is to provide primatologists and zoologists with the opportunity to decide whether a particular name should be chosen for each taxon, and whether the list of names previously selected (Grubb et al. 2003) should be accepted or modified. Readers may question the principles adopted in compiling that list, the merits of making lists of common names at all, or the selection of what are supposed to be the best of these names.

The Compilation

English-language common names for species and subspecies of African primates were found in the references listed at the end of this paper. In Table 1, the names are listed as published, except for the following alterations:

  • Even if the whole name was capitalized in the original, only proper nouns (and adjectives) are capitalized here, and then with some exceptions. Anubis, Diana, Magot, Malbrouck, Mangabey, Pluto, Satan, Tantalus, and Thoth are not capitalized as (parts of) primate names. In general English usage, the common names of animal species are not proper names and do not have capital initials. There are contexts in which it may be appropriate to regard species as individuals, but when a common name can be used in the plural, one cannot justify treating it as a proper name that therefore requires it to be capitalized. This is not to deny that species names are often capitalized in titles or headings. Some authors prefer to capitalize common names, and some serial publications require this to be done — no doubt for sound reasons.

  • Corrections are made to misspelled surnames such as Bate, de Brazzae, Preussis, and Vleeschower (i.e., Bates, de Brazza, Preuss, and Vleeschowers).

  • Possessive forms of personal names are standardized — Peters's, Pousargues's, or Sykes's instead of Peters', etc. Some authors avoid possessives in vernacular animal names, though I have found few instances among names of African primates, “Foa red colobus” (instead of Foa's) being an example.

  • Gordons' instead of Gordon's for red or bay colobus, Procolobus gordonorum, because it was named after the brothers Von Gordon.

  • Fernando Po instead of Fernando Poo as the old name of Bioko.

  • Bush-baby instead of bushbaby or bush baby.

  • Night-ape instead of night ape or nightape.

  • Moholi galago instead of mohol galago for Galago moholi. The assumption is that “moholi” is a genitive form of a nominative “mohol,” whereas it is actually a noun in apposition — a version of the Tsetswana moHwele or mogwêlê.

Table 1.

List of scientific and vernacular names for species and subspecies of African primates. The names listed in Grubb et al. 2003 are in bold type. See “The Compilation” for further explanation.


Table 1.



Table 1.



Table 1.



Table 1.



Names for each taxon are in alphabetical order and are followed by any names applied solely to what are now synonyms (with the synonym in parentheses). Such common names may come back into use if these synonymized taxa are restored to validity. Synonyms for which no common name has been proposed are not cited. Words or letters in parentheses are used in a name by some authors but not others. Taxonomy follows that proposed by Grubb et al. (2003). Some subspecies are regarded as full species in other publications. For example, Groves (2001) treated Cercocebus galeritus sanjei as C. sanjei and here I list it as C. (galeritus) sanjei to indicate the different opinions concerning its rank. The species C. galeritus, therefore, has a more extensive compass or sensu lato, and a more restricted compass or sensu stricto, for which authors have assigned different names (Table 1). I draw attention to names used for more than one taxon (other than species and their nominate subspecies) and names that imply occurrence in an area where the taxon has not been found. Names selected by Grubb et al. 2003 are in bold.

In compiling their list, Grubb et al. (2003) adopted principles and made decisions that were not recorded at the time but are listed here, as follows:

  • Two or more names — not a single one — were provided for each of the following species: Macaca sylvanus, Cercocebus atys, Cercopithecus aethiops, C. diana, C. campbelli, C. pogonias, C. mitis, Pan troglodytes, and P. paniscus. Choice of a preferred name is not always easy. “Common” in animal names — such as “common chimpanzee” — may be interpreted as “abundant,” particularly by those for whom English is not their first language, according to Duckworth and Pine (2003), who would avoid it. If instead “chimpanzee” were the preferred name for Pan troglodytes, and P. paniscus was called “pygmy chimpanzee,” “chimpanzee” would refer as well to all Pan species. This ambiguity is also to be avoided, but if P. paniscus were called “bonobo,” the difficulty would not arise. However, A. Kortlandt (in litt.) found objections to the use of “bonobo” as a common name — but “pygmy chimpanzee” is not literally descriptive, so need not be acceptable either. If a decision must be made, choice of “chimpanzee” and “bonobo” as preferred names may be the least objectionable option.

  • Separate names for species and nominate subspecies were provided. A nominate subspecies has often been given the same common name as the species but while its status as a subspecies can still be identifiable — for instance, Procolobus pennantii pennantii could be “Pennant's red colobus (nominate race),” a separate name can be less ambiguous. Where a single polytypic species is partitioned into several species, the original common name may be abandoned because it becomes ambiguous and a new name is required — an erstwhile subspecies name. Thus when the gorilla was partitioned into two species, these became “western gorilla” and “eastern gorilla,” and similarly the angwantibo became “Calabar angwantibo” and “golden angwantibo.”

  • Surnames of people commemorated in primate nomenclature were used in the possessive form (for example, Stuhlmann's blue monkey, not Stuhlmann blue monkey).

  • Where appropriate, locality names were identified topographically (Bale Mountain grivet, not Bale grivet; or Omo River guereza, not Omo guereza).

  • Adjectival forms of places were avoided (Angola blackand-white colobus, not Angolan black-and-white colobus).

  • “Galago” was used in preference to “bush-baby.”

  • “Hamadryas” was chosen because it is now widely used, although the spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary is “hamadryad.”

  • “Monkey” was used in preference to “guenon.”

  • Cercopithecus dryas was called the dryad monkey. Dryad — not dryas — is the accepted spelling (Oxford English Dictionary).

  • “Guereza” — an Ethiopian name for Colobus guereza — had been used as if it were a synonym of “colobus monkey” by Forbes (1894), Elliot (1913–1914) and Sanderson (1957), but nowadays is once again applied only to C. guereza.

A few changes from the original list (Grubb et al. 2003) are made here, as follows:

  • The Uganda lesser galago (Galago senegalensis sotikae) is known only from the type locality (the Telek River, Sotik, in Kenya) so “Sotik lesser galago” (not “Sotik River galago”) would be preferable.

  • The Ibean yellow baboon (Papio cyncephalus ibeanus) is named after IBEA, an acronym of the short-lived Imperial British East Africa Company, with which this taxon has no particular association. “Northern yellow baboon” would be preferable.

  • The western gelada (Theropithecus gelada gelada) and eastern gelada (T. g. obscurus) occur respectively in the northern and southern sectors of their species' range. “Northern gelada” and “southern gelada” would be preferable names.

  • Colobus guereza percivali is called the Mt Uarges guereza, but Uaraguess is an approved spelling, so “Mt Uaraguess guereza” would be preferable.

Altogether there are approximately 1,000 English names for 174 species and subspecies of the African primate fauna.


The prolixity of common names for African primates (Table 1) does not appear to arise from strong preferences or differences in opinion among naturalists but rather by a failure to follow precedent, leading to a clutter of permutations and combinations. Some authors have treated nouns attributively so as to inform us of the group of animals to which they refer (e.g., samango monkey or gelada baboon) while others see no need for this (e.g., samango or gelada). Other sources of diversity include alternative stem-words (galago or bush-baby, guenon or monkey), forms of qualifiers (Angola or Angolan, moustache or moustached), neologisms without a long history in the literature and often cited as alternative names (mitis monkey, neglectus monkey), abandoned names (colob), and possible unawareness that common names have already been provided (fire-bellied Wolf's monkey or red-bellied mona for the same taxon).

Zoologists have rejected some common names for animals as misleading or unsuitable because they do not conform to their chosen principles. Where it has seemed appropriate, they have provided new names. Primatologists could follow these precedents. Acting alone, collectively, or institutionally — for instance in a committee — they could recommend which common names are to be quoted in publications on primates. From published sources they could select a leading common name for each species and recommend that it take precedence where a range of names is cited or that it is to be the sole name cited. Corbet and Hill (1991), R. W. Hayman's translation of Haltenorth and Diller (1980), Wilson and Cole (2000), Groves (2001, 2005), and Duff and Lawson (2004) have already selected single names for African primate species.

Common names for African primate subspecies have not been used very frequently. Authors have not published common names for all the subspecies to which they refer in systematic compilations (for example, Elliot 1913–1914; R. W. Hayman's translation of Haltenorth and Diller 1980; Napier 1981). Grubb et al. (2003) provided a complete list of subspecies names (Table 1). Some subspecies names are modified species names (western potto, Kinda yellow baboon), but if all were formed in this way, they could become too long (e.g., white-tailed small-eared greater galago). Other subspecies names in general use are not modified species names (e.g., white-naped mangabey, Moloney's monkey, roloway monkey). If subspecies names were altered so that they were all modified versions of species names, there would be adverse consequences. The numerous changes required would further burden the stock of published common names, and every alteration in taxonomic rank would require yet another name change.

Some authors (e.g., Duckworth and Pine 2003) prefer common names to be applied only to species, not to subspecies, on the grounds that the public may be misled or may draw false inferences about systematics, hampering their appreciation of taxonomy — subspecies could be thought to be species. However, there are positive reasons for using common names for subspecies. They could contribute to the conservation of these taxa by helping to make them more widely recognized by the public in popular articles, posters and films — as in the case of Miss Waldron's red colobus (see McGraw 2005). Using appropriate common names would more precisely identify primate taxa in contexts where scientific names of subspecies would not be appropriate. It is useful to have names for other subspecies (Table 1) should they be required for publicity material, for legends to illustrations, or for cases in which subspecies are raised to species status. If species were to be recognized as the smallest diagnosable assemblages of interbreeding organisms (Groves 2001), according to the phylogenetic-species definition (“phylogenetic species-concept”), many common names for subspecies would be needed as names for species.


The preferred names of species and subspecies in Table 1 and Grubb et al. 2003 could be regarded as a recommended list. However, conformity with this or any other list — if desired — can only be achieved through consensus. I do not wish to assert which names should be selected. Readers can see what common names have been used for African primates and, if they wish, decide which names they would prefer to use. They may not agree with some of the choices of recommended names or with some of the principles employed in their selection. They may choose different names out of the alternatives listed in Table 1 or they may wish to create some entirely new names. If the latter, it would be desirable if they explained their reasons and remembered that new names increase the load of vernacular nomenclature in the literature. More discussion on the common names to be adopted for primates is probably desirable. It would be interesting to know of the diversity of common names of primates in French, German, and other languages. To the extent that English is an international language of science, it would be desirable to achieve more stability for English-language common names.

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Peter Grubb "English Common Names for Subspecies and Species of African Primates," Primate Conservation 2006(20), 65-73, (1 May 2006).
Received: 1 December 2004; Published: 1 May 2006
African primates
common names
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