Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: The Naming of the Shrew

There are many things that you learn during the course of a zoology degree, and the subsequent years regarding the scientific naming of animals and plants. These include such facts as the binomial system of taxonomy that we use today was the brainchild of Carl Linnaeus, and that each individual species has its own unique name. It isn’t unless you ever need to go ahead and name a new species for yourself, that you realise that these facts are a little basic. They may be true, but they radically oversimplify the history of scientific names, and how certain species got their names. If like me, you’re able to remember a wide range of scientific names from a range of species, you start to get an understanding for the conventions behind naming but again this isn’t the complete picture. Linnaeus may have helped unify taxonomy into a singular naming system, but it’s taken centuries to get to the period of relative stability that we find ourselves in now, despite the fact that taxonomy is still constantly changing. The Naming of the Shrew is a fantastic tour of the history of scientific naming, which is highly accessible authored by the mycologist John Wright. Also, top marks for the Shakespeare reference there too!

One of the issues that Wright highlights, which has caused headaches for taxonomists for the past few centuries is the fact that Linnaeus wasn’t the first to devise a classification and naming system. Like many great ideas, Linnaeus built on the information that was already available, adding his own unique spin on things, to revolutionise the world. This means that a number of species already known to European scientists had a myriad of names before the publication of Systema Naturae (Linnaeus’ book outlining his new binomial system). What does this mean in practical terms? Well, it means that in the modern view of taxonomy, some of these older names are retained, if they are seen as being valid. Linnaeus may have been the grandfather of Linnaean taxonomy, but he wasn’t the first to assign names to animals, plants and fungi. As you can imagine, this has caused a number of headaches as various species have been given different names by different taxonomists through the years, in different locations. How do you know which one is the most valid? It takes a lot of detective work, which I can only imagine is quite the task. Our current understanding of the taxonomy of European species is relatively stable, especially for mammals and birds, which have always been favoured by taxonomists. The other taxa this case is less so, such as in amphibians which Linnaeus wasn’t really fond of. Around the rest of the world though, things are still in a state of flux, but this is mainly due to new molecular techniques, instead of trying to work out if a dozen different names apply to a dozen different animals, or just one.

As a child, the most easiest species for me to remember the scientific name of was Bufo bufo – the common toad. This is an example of a tautonym, where the same word is used for both the genus and the species name. Now, until reading The Naming of the Shrew I wasn’t aware that this is a uniquely zoological phenomena, with it being frowned upon in botany. Wright also goes into detail about how a number of species such as the common shrew, went about getting their names. Some of them are straightforward, being named after a place, their ecology, colouration, or a person. Others are less straight forward, yet the narrative behind why is truly fascinating. If you’re looking for a truly fun read, while also expanding your knowledge on a subject that all zoologists and botanists should have a basic understanding of, then you’ll enjoy this book. I can imagine that when Wright first pitched this book, the publishers would have given him a funny look. However, there is wit and humour throughout, which helps to keep the somewhat dry topic of Latin and Greek moving forward. Given the large number of species covered within, there is even a chance that you may learn how your favourite species got its scientific name.

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