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Random Act of Anatomy - ratite & carinate birds - ships that pass in the night

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Published on Jul 2, 2017

How do groups of animals get their names? Birds have often been divided into carinates and ratites. Carinate birds have a keeled sternum (breastbone) to accommodate their large flight muscles, whereas ratites are large flightless birds, like ostrich, emus, and kiwi. Carinatae and Ratitae have even been formal taxonomic names, though not so much recently. "Carinate" explicitly refers to the "carina" which is Latin for "keel," as in the keeled hull of a boat. What about "ratite"...what's its etymology? It turns out that "ratite" is Latin for "raft," a flat-bottomed boat lacking a keel. So, birds and boats somehow got linked and were named by comparison to nautical vessels. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when old taxonomic or anatomical terms seem archaic or simplistic (e.g., the coiled hearing organ of your inner ear is called the “cochlea,” which is Latin for “snail’s shell”), because they were named in simpler times…Blasius Merrem coined Carinatae and Ratitae in 1813, and “cochlea” extends back to at least the late 1600s.

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