Vultures: scientific names explained

1.    White-backed Vulture – Gyps africanus
The Gyps vultures are a genus of Old World vultures in the bird family Accipitridae, which also includes eagles, kites, buzzards and hawks.
Gups is Greek for ‘griffon vulture’.
Africanus: (Latin) refers to its distribution, thus distinguishing it from the Asian White-backed Vulture.

2.    Cape Griffon Vulture – Gyps coprotheres
The Gyps vultures are a genus of Old World vultures in the bird family Accipitridae, which also includes eagles, kites, buzzards and hawks.
Coprotheres (Greek): kopros is dung, theres means ‘hunting’ and is based on the earlier belief that vultures feed mainly on dung. Cape vultures do often feed through the anus to get to the softer insides which is probably where this assumption originated from.

3.    Lappet-faced Vulture – Torgos tracheliotos
Torgos is Greek for vulture. The Greek words trachelos (throat) and otos (ear) draw attention to the naked throat and head as well as to the characteristic skin folds (lappets) on the ear region.

4.    Hooded Vulture – Necrosyrtes monachus
(Necrosyrtes monachus, literally “a monk-like (bird) that drags away the dead”).
The genus name is derived from the Greek work nekros (corpse) and surtes (to pull) and refers to the feeding habits of vultures. Monachus is Latin for ‘monk’, referring to the hooded appearance.

5.    White-headed Vulture – Trigonoceps occipitalis
The scientific name refers to the triangular shape of the head. The Greek word trigono and ceps mean ‘triangular’ and ‘head’ respectively, while the Latin occipitalis is a reference to the back of the head.

6.    Bearded Vulture – Gypaetus barbatus
The scientific name emphasizes the bearded appearance (barbatus is Latin for beard) and the fact that this is not a typical vulture (gups is ‘griffon vulture’ and aetos ‘eagle’ in Greek). The outdated name Lammergeier refers to the erroneous belief that this bird is able to catch lambs.

7.    Egyptian Vulture – Neophron percnopterus
Neophron, a character in the pseudo-mythological stories of Antoninus Liberalis, was changed into a vulture by Zeus because of trickery. The Greek words percnos (dusky) and pterus (wing) refer to the dark flight feathers. Egyptian Vultures used to be abundant along the Nile River and were even depicted by Ancient Egyptians. Their close association with people earned them the name ‘Pharaoh’s chickens’.

8.    Palm-nut Vulture – Gypohierax angolensis
Gypohierax (gups [Greek] for ‘griffon vulture’ and hierax for ‘hawk’) indicates that this is not a typical vulture. The fact that it is probably more closely related to fish eagles is also emphasized by the alternative name of Vulturine Fish Eagle.

9.    Ruppell’s Vulture  – Gyps rueppellii
Gups is the Greek for ‘griffon vulture’. Dr Eduard Rüppell (1794-1884), a German zoologist, travelled extensively in north-eastern Africa while collecting specimens for the Senckenberg Museum. (Rüppell’s Korhaan and Rüppell’s Parrot were also named after him).

Scientific Classification:
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Gyps, Torgos, Necrosyrtes, Trigonoceps, Gypaetus, Neophron, Gypohierax


  • Ulrich Oberprieler and Burger Cillie, RAPTOR IDENTIFICATION GUIDE for Southern Africa; Rollerbird Press, Parklands, 2002.
  • Kenneth Newman; Newman’s BIRDS of southern Africa, Struik Publishers (PTY) Ltd, 2000

Nigel Anderson
Guide at African Insight

About Andrew Anderson

Managing Director: African Insight - Travel Experiences That Make A Difference African Insight - Explorations Tourism Concessionaire - Somkhanda Game Reserve
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