Originally published December 2009
Hello everyone! I hope you are coping with the howling winds and the rain beating down on us with Old Testament ferocity! Unfortunately some of our lovely Silver Birch on the Reserve have not fared so well and are beginning their last crucial role in the woodland cycle of life, ie. dead wood. A couple of these casualties are leaning quite precariously against other trees and, given the present conditions, may come down at any time. Therefore, as much as it pains me to warn people away from enjoying Quarry Wood, I strongly advise you not to venture too far in among the trees at present, especially on windy days.
Now to the real business of this month’s mental meanderings. Every few years we survey the Reserve and update our species records. Very impressive they are too! Lists of all the plants, animals and fungi which those clever bods from the Powdermill Trust have identified and placed in their respective groups. So with my boxfile of species records in mind, let us have a seasonal show of hands! What impact did the Ancient Greeks, the Romans and a rather egotistical Swede have on every single living thing on the planet? The answer, absolutely none at all! Now if the question is what impact did they all have on our perception of every living thing? Then the answer is summed up in one word, Classification.
The need to name and group organisms has been fundamental to our existence since long before the time of Socrates, after all it was in their best interest to be able to differentiate between hemlock and olive oil! Let us look at the process of naming living things first of all, and this is where the answer to my initial question rings true. For in naming something we do not change it in any way at all; an Oak tree will continue to be that tree whether you call it Oak, Ash or even the Sydney Opera House. The fact that there are several hundred languages spoken around the world ensures that an organism found in many countries will have as many names. Add regional variations, for instance May Bug, Lady Cow, Golden Knop and the Bishop-that Burneth are all names that have been used in such foreign parts as Suffolk and Norfolk for our Beetle of our Lady or Ladybird, and it is a wonder that any of us know what we are talking about!
Throughout history those cultures with a limited awareness of the world around them named whatever they encountered on a purely practical level. We are all familiar with the popular urban legend that the Eskimo have umpteen names for snow, but perhaps a more thought provoking example is that of the Gauchos of Argentina. The original cowboys have some 200 names of different colours of horses, yet generally divide plants into just four categories, fodder, bedding, wood and everything else! Biologists however, need to be able to exchange information about the vast diversity of organisms, more than 5 million different species and counting. In order to do this they needed a method of naming and grouping them in an orderly and logical way.
Enter Carl von Linne (1707-1778) a Swedish botanist who devised the binomial method of naming organisms eg. Homo sapiens and a structure into which all living things, and crucially all further discoveries, could be placed. Thus the science of Taxonomy (from the Greek Taxis– meaning ‘order’ or ‘rank’, and nomia meaning ‘law’) was created. Linne’s basic hierarchy, Kingdom, Phylum, Class Order, Family, Genus, Species, (or King Philip Came Over From Great Spain!) is still used today. So how does it work? Well let us take one of our common animals and put it to the test.
The Genus/Species combination is unique for all living things, therefore our rabbit is known as Oryctolagus cuniculus wherever you are in the world. As the lingua franca of the scholars of the day Latin, with more than a smattering of Greek thrown in, was used to name organisms on the basis of description, region found or person naming it. Carl von Linne in a burst of ostentacious self importance changed his name to Carolus Linnaeus and you will find his name incorporated into several hundred species’ names. One advantage of using Latin and Ancient Greek is that, being dead languages there is no fear of them evolving (or regressing, in the case of English!) and the meaning of names changing. It would have been a bit much if forty years ago Genus Oryctolagus had suddenly become something that enjoyed ‘60s culture!
So next time you are wandering through our little reserve please take a little time to consider how much time and effort was put into classifying and naming every tree, shrub, insect, bird and animal you can see or hear around you. Then forget it and enjoy them, whatever they are called!
‘We called him Tortoise, because he taught us’.
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)
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Merry Christmas, One and All!