This is a guest post by  linguist and ethnobiologist Dr. Myfany Turpin that was originally published at the Endangered Languages and Cultures website.

The names for ‘sand goanna’ (Varanus gouldii) in the languages of areas where they are found often correspond to two ethnospecies.

Photographed here are the small arlewatyerre and the large aremaye, both from near Barrow Creek, NT, as they are called in Arandic languages (Arrernte, Kaytetye, Anmatyerr and Alyawarr).

On this day my companions successfully hunted both in close proximity, so I thought I’d see if there were differences in the scientific taxonomy that could improve my translations of ‘small sand goanna’ and ‘large sand goanna’ respectively.

However it turns out that the nomenclature surrounding these lizards is as difficult to navigate as their burrow:

… the animals referred to here as sand goannas or goanna x (V. flavirufus) are usually called V. gouldii gouldii in the literature. The desert sand goanna V. flavirufus flavirufus is usually called V. gouldii flavirufus. The animals known as V. panoptes in the literature should be called V. gouldii, and the animals known as V.gouldii in the literature actually belong to V. flavirufus. In older literature the name V.gouldii could describe the nameless actuality, V. gouldii gouldii, V.g. rubidus, V.g. horni, V. flavirufus or V. rosenbergi.

Extract from A Little Book of Monitor Lizards © Daniel Bennett 1995. Viper Press, UK

Wikipedia paints a much simpler picture:

• Gould’s goanna – V. g. gouldii

• Desert sand monitor – V. g. flavirufus

Both exist in the arid interior of Australia, but V. g. gouldii also exists across most of Australia.

For Kaytetye speakers, the main difference between their ethnospecies is size and frequency: arlewatyerre is smaller and common while aremaye is big and less common (five of the former and one of the latter were obtained on this day).

Such highly localized knowledge is absent in the descriptions of the two subspecies, which say that size, pattern and colour vary depending on the region.

One comment by Bennett suggests that the smaller one could be V. g. flavirufus:

The habit of standing bipedally is well documented for Gould’s goanna, but my impression is that V. flavirufus flavirufus is less inclined to adopt a bipedal stance than Gould’s goanna or goanna x, probably on account of its smaller body size.

Where was my inner herpetologist when I was in the field to tell me to ask if they were both bipedal? But then another comment by Bennett, coupled with my scant first-hand experience of the holes of these lizards, suggests that the larger one could in fact be V. g. flavirufus:

V. flavirufus flavirufus (and probably other closely related races) often shelter in shallow burrows that terminate just below the surface.

Again, where was my inner herpetologist to measure burrow depth?

The odds stack up even more for the larger one as being V. g. flavirufus when we consider another observation by Bennett:

The sand goanna [V. g. flavirufus] is restricted to sandy soils whilst Gould’s goanna [V. g. gouldii] prefers harder substrates.

Kaytetye speakers say that the larger lizard tends to be found in coarser sand. There is also a totemic site for the larger lizard that is on a creek bed. However, the one we got yesterday was not in what I considered to be particularly sandy soil. But then again, what exactly is ‘harder substrates’? Time to consult the inner geologist…

In summary, a brief comparison of their scientific descriptions on the web did not enable me to decide if the two ethnospecies correspond to the two subspecies of Varanus gouldii, and if so, which ones. All in all, Bennett paints a bleak picture of the knowledge of these two subspecies:

… some people believe that the desert populations (V. flavirufus) form a separate species from the animals in more mesic areas, and that the latter animals (which now have no valid scientific name) may be a complex of more than one species. This makes any description of the group ridiculously complicated. Biochemical comparisons of the group throughout Australia are needed to properly resolve these very serious taxonomic problems.”

Stay tuned for updates from the herpetologists on this one.

The difficulty in navigating the Linnaean nomenclature, coupled with the fact that most linguists do not have the necessary local biological expertise, point to the need for us to foster relationships with our cousins in biology if we are to seriously document the vocabulary of Indigenous languages.


If there are any herpetologists out there with any tips for Myf — or the rest of us — please feel free to share your knowledge.

You can see more of Myf’s work by following the links below:

1 – The presentation by Dr Myfany Turpin and Veronica Dobson: “The Spotted Nightjar calls when Dingo pups are born: Birds as indicators in the Arandic region of Central Australia” at the 12th International Congress of Ethnobiology at Tofino, British Columbia in 2010.

2 – Birds that tell people things – 4 posters of central Australian bird knowledge.

3 – Last but not least the magisterial Kaytetye to English dictionary – things to love about words – and more. Of this I’m reminded of the wonderful words of Jane Simpson from Sydney University at the time of the Dictionary’s launch in 2012. They are worth reproducing in full.

[Myf] has over many years published an enormous amount of analysis and documentation of Kaytetye that is of great benefit to the Kaytetye community as well as to linguists. In 2000 she produced A Learner’s Guide to Kaytetye. IAD Press, Alice Springs, NT.

In 2003 came the text collection Growing Up Kaytetye. Stories by Tommy Kngwarraye Thompson. (It’s one of his paintings that provides the beautiful cover of the dictionary). In 2004 she and Alison Ross produced the Kaytetye Picture Dictionary, and a CD Awelye Akwelye: Kaytetye women’s songs from Arnerre, Central Australia. (This was distributed by Papulu Apparr-kari language and culture centre, Tennant Creek. Recordings by Grace, Koch, Linda Barwick and Myfany Turpin, commentary by Myfany Turpin and Alison Ross. Somewhere along the line she produced a Kaytetye version of Sesame Street. Oh and by the by she fitted in her PhD thesis, Form and meaning of Akwelye: a Kaytetye women’s song series from Central Australia: University of Sydney PhD, 2005.

And now, this enormous dictionary. In today’s academic climate this has been an extraordinarily generous act.