University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > What's in a name? Negotiations of credibility and authority in the naming of the giant otter shrew (Potamogale velox)

What's in a name? Negotiations of credibility and authority in the naming of the giant otter shrew (Potamogale velox)

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The nineteenth century is commonly associated with the growth of imperial trade routes and a ‘deluge’ of specimens that is said to have flooded natural history museums and collections together with a surge in the number of known biological species. However, the practice of naming new species continued to pose a challenge to an increasingly larger, more international, and more specialized community of naturalists.

This paper introduces the context behind the numerous names and descriptions of the elusive giant otter shrew (Potamogale velox), a small African mammal with a laterally compressed tail, aquatic feeding, and elusive behaviour that challenged its first scientific descriptions. In his travel accounts in 1861, the French-American explorer Paul Du Chaillu provisionally called the animal that he had caught in Gabon – and that he thought was a new species of carnivore – Cynogale velox. After observing the specimen, John Edward Gray, the keeper of the British Museum, called the animal Mythomys, a figment of the explorer’s imagination. When new and more complete specimens arrived in Europe some years later, the Portuguese zoologist and museum director José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage, proposed to review it as the insectivore Bayonia angolensis, while almost at the same time, the Scottish professor George J. Allman named it Potamogale velox, referring back to Du Chaillu as the original describer.

The problematic characteristics of the actual animal were reflected in the confused description, publication, and nomenclature process. Beyond the specimens themselves, this paper demonstrates that the naturalists’ practices of negotiation of credibility and authority were just as problematic, as these experts put forward their claims for what constitutes a credible name and an appropriate description, and fought over who should have the credentials to name new species. This paper shows how the Code for Zoological nomenclature, the nature of which was being discussed in the community at the time, was not sufficient to assure standardization of practices when so little information was available and, especially, when credit, authority, and reputation were at stake.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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