The Zoologist/4th series, vol 2 (1898)/Issue 681/The Technical Names of British Mammals

The Technical Names of British Mammals  (1898) 
by Oldfield Thomas

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 2, issue 681 (March, 1898), p. 97–103


No. 681.—March, 1898.


By Oldfield Thomas, F.Z.S.

Nomenclature, like linguistics or the structure of Greek names, is one of the collateral subjects which, however far from true zoology, have yet to be dealt with by every working zoologist; while it has the added inconvenience that, however it is done, whether rigidly or laxly, by rule or without it, its study is sure to bring down on the head of the worker the wrath of outsiders whenever unexpected results are arrived at.

This is especially the case in any group of animals which is particularly well known to outside, as opposed to technical, workers, and therefore any change in the nomenclature of so well-known a group as our British Mammals is to be greatly deplored from every point of view. But for this very reason, if technically unavoidable, changes should be adopted as soon and as widely as possible, so that the younger generation of naturalists may grow up knowing the proper names, and may not have to undergo the inconveniences we have all been put to.

An opportunity for a general revision of the names of our British Mammals seems now to have presented itself on the publication of a paper on the nomenclature of European Bats, showing what the proper names should be. These, as always happens, prove to be widely different from what we are accustomed to, and show how muddled and incorrect our current nomenclature has been.

The paper referred to is one by Mr. Gerrit S. Miller, a young American, who in the preparation of his monograph of North American Vespertilionidæ[1] has investigated the nomenclature of all our European genera of that family, and has published the results in an English periodical.[2]

So great is the general dislike to change in nomenclature that after the publication of such a paper one finds that some people reject the changes altogether, while others adopt them, using the fresh names as occasion offers, the natural result being a long period of confusion and inconvenience. It is therefore thought that a concise list of the British Mammals, under the names believed to be correct on the most rigid principles of nomenclature, will be of use both to those who wish to form an opinion of their own on the subject, and to those who are willing to accept, if they know them, whatever names may be adopted by the world in general.

The object of nomenclature is to obtain a stable list of names, and while experience shows that such stability is unattainable while each author clings to what he or she thinks is the "well-known" name, it equally shows that at first a technical, and then a general, uniformity may be obtained by the rigid application of the principle of priority, whatever the temporary inconveniences of such a course may be.

One of the chief causes of the large number of changes necessary is that Linnæus gave certain names to certain animals in Scandinavia, and that these names were transferred to quite different animals in Central Europe and England under the erroneous idea that they were the animals Linnæus referred to. The most disastrous of these mistakes is that of "Vespertilio murinus" as worked out by Mr. Miller and explained below; but the Hares and Shrews have also been affected by the same kind of mistake.

The wrong use of Vesperugo for Pipistrellus, Crossopus for Neomys, Synotus for Barbastella, and Arvicola for Microtus are simple cases of defiance of priority, and can be corrected without confusion.

Lastly, although more debateable than priority, I would express my belief in the advisability of adopting the so-called "Scomber-scomber principle" on the score of its logicalness, simplicity, and exactness, the readiness with which the proper name of any species may be found under its guidance, and the exact indication it gives as to which is the type-species of a given genus. It unfortunately gives rise to some ugly compounds, although Glis glis or Myotis myotis are not so bad; but aesthetic considerations, full as they are of the personal equation, can hardly be allowed to have a preponderating influence in so prosaic a subject as nomenclature. Moreover, it so happens that of the animals to which Scomber-scomber names apply, several of the best known would still have strange and unfamiliar terms belonging to them even if the principle were rejected. Thus we should have Meles europæus, not M. taxus (which was based on the American Badger), and Vulpes alopex, not V. vulgaris; while the problem of what the name of the Polecat should be, if not Putorius putorius, is one which I have as yet quite failed to solve. There would therefore be no gain in the abolition of this much-abused principle so far as familiarity with the resulting names is concerned. In his editorial introduction to Lydekker's 'British Mammals' Dr. Bowdler Sharpe has also advocated the same principle.

In the following list the Cetaceans are omitted, for, while there is probably but little wrong with their nomenclature, I have not worked at them sufficiently to care to be responsible for their names. It may, however, be noted that two of them—Orca orca, the Killer, and Phocœna phocœna, the Porpoise—take Scomber-scomber names; while it is evident that on a principle about preoccupied names nearly universally accepted, the Lesser Rorqual cannot bear a name based on "Balæna rostrata," Fabricius, 1780, when there was already a Balæna rostrata, Müller, 1776 (now Hyperoodon rostratus), in existence. Its name should apparently be Balænoptera acuto-rostrata, Lacépède. Finally, the Pilot Whale, whose generic name was originally formed in the feminine gender, should be called Globicephala melæna instead of Globicephalus melas, the universal rule being to alter the gender of the specific name to suit the generic, and not vice versâ.

English Name. Current Name. Name Advocated.
Greater Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus ferrum-equinum Rhinolophus ferrum-equinum.
Lesser Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus hipposiderus Rhinolophus hipposiderus.
Long-eared Bat Plecotus auritus Plecotus auritus.
Barbastelle Synotus barbastellus Barbastella barbastellus.
Serotine Vesperugo (Vesperus) serotinus Vespertilio serotinus.
Parti-coloured Bat Vesperugo (Vesperus) discolor Vesperugo murinus.
Noctule Vesperugo (Vesperugo) noctula Pipistrellus noctula.[3]
Hairy-armed Bat Vesperugo (Vesperugo) leisleri Pipistrellus leisleri.
Pipistrelle Vesperugo (Vesperugo) pipistrellus Pipistrellus pipistrellus.
Bechstein's Bat Vespertilio bechsteini Myotis bechsteini.
Natterer's Bat Vespertilio nattereri Myotis nattereri.
Daubenton's Bat Vespertilio daubentoni Myotis daubentoni.
Whiskered Bat Vespertilio mystacinus Myotis mystacinus.
Hedgehog Erinaceus europæus Erinaceus europæceus.
Mole Talpa europæa Talpa europæa.
Common Shrew Sorex vulgaris Sorex araneus.
Pigmy Shrew Sorex pygmæus Sorex minutus,
Water Shrew Crossopus fodiens Neomys fodiens.
Wild Cat Felis catus Felis catus.
Fox Vulpes vulgaris Vulpes vulpes.
Pine Marten Martes abietum Mustela martes.
Polecat Mustela putorius Putorius putorius.
Common Stoat Mustela erminea Putorius ermineus.
Irish Stoat —— Putorius hibernicus.
Weasel Mustela vulgaris Putorius nivalis.
Otter Lutra vulgaris Lutra lutra.
Common Seal Phoca vitulina Phoca vitulina.
Ringed Seal Phoca hispida Phoca hispida.
Harp Seal Phoca grœnlandica Phoca grœnlandica.
Hooded Seal Cystophora cristata Cystophora cristata.
Grey Seal Halichœrus gryphus Halichœcerus grypus.
Walrus Trichechus rosmarus Odobænus rosmarus.
Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris Sciurus vulgaris.
Dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius Muscardinus avellanarius.
Common Rat Mus decumanus Mus decumanus.
Black Rat Mus rattus Mus rattus.
House Mouse Mus musculus Mus musculus.
Long-tailed Field Mouse Mus sylvaticus Mus sylvaticus.
Harvest Mouse Mus minutus Mus minutus.
Water Vole Arvicola amphibius Microtus amphibius.

|- |  |- |Common Field Vole |Arvicola agrestis |Microtus agrestis. |- |Bank Vole |Arvicola glareolus |Evotomys glareolus. |- |Hare |Lepus timidus |Lepus europæus. |- |Varying or "Blue" Hare |Lepus variabilis |Lepus timidus. |- |Rabbit |Lepus cuniculus |Lepus cuniculus. |- | |- |colspan=3 style="text-align:center;"|Ungulata. |- |  |- |Red Deer |Cervus elaphus |Cervus elaphus. |- |Fallow Deer |Cervus dama |Cervus dama. |- |Roe Deer |Capreolus caprea |Capreolus capreolus. |}

Notes and Explanations to the List.


With regard to the fundamental error about "Vespertilio murinus" referred to above, it may be explained that Linnaeus, speaking in his * Fauna Suecica ' solely of Swedish animals, considered that there were two species of Vespertilio only—V. auritus with long ears, and V. murinus with short ears. The first is Plecotus auritus, and the second is certainly not the large continental species commonly so called, which does not occur in Scandinavia, but is either the Bat hitherto called Vesperugo (Vesperus) discolor, or V. (Vesperus) nilssoni, and in all probability the former, the doubt in no way affecting the generic changes involved. In the 'Systema Naturæ' the same names were used. It is clear therefore that Vespertilio must be adopted for the "Vesperus" group of Vesperugo, and since it seems on the whole advisable that that group should stand as a genus distinct from true "Vesperugo," only two of our British Bats—the Serotine and the Parti-coloured[4]— will fall into Vespertilio in its new sense. The other members of "Vesperugo," as a matter of priority, must bear the easily remembered name of Pipistrellus. For those formerly called Vespertilio the proper name is Myotis.

Full references are given in the paper by Mr. Miller quoted above, as also in the case of Barbastella (1825), which antedates Synotus (1839).


The nomenclature of the true Shrews has already been explained in 'The Zoologist.'[5] That of the Water Shrew unfortunately involves a change, for the name Neomys was proposed as a generic title for it in 1829,[6] while Crossopus only dates from 1832.


The Scomber-scomber names in this group have already been referred to, and that of Putorius nivalis for the Weasel explained in 'The Zoologist.'[7]

Among the Pinnipedia, the vexed question of hispida versus fœtida for the Ringed Seal has been settled by Mr. Sherborn's researches on the dates of the plates of Schreber's ' Säugethiere,' which give hispida a year's priority over its rival. Trichechus is now universally admitted (even by people who refuse to adopt the alteration involved) to have been based on the Manatee. It should not therefore be used for the Walrus.


The British Squirrel, Short-tailed Field Vole, and Common Hare have all lately been considered to be at least subspecifically different from the typical continental forms, as is also the Hebrides Field Mouse; while another form of Mus sylvaticus has been shown to be the same as the Danish "Mus flavicollis."

These refinements, however, while of great interest to the technical student, do not directly affect the specific nomenclature, and need not therefore detain us here.

Among the Voles, it seems time that the generic separation of the Bank Vole from the others, long universally recognized by technical writers, should be adopted in more popular works. The first-named, with the "Ruddy Vole" of Northern Europe, and the "Red-backed Voles" of North America, may be distinguished by its semi-rooted teeth and more murine skull from the true Voles, of which our Water Vole and Short-tailed Vole are representative. The latter must of course be called Microtus, not Arvicola; while for the Bank Vole and its allies Dr. Coues's term Evotomys is available.

Lastly, in the Hares we have a repetition of the ever-recurring Scandinavian muddle. Linnæus's Lepus timidus was of course the northern, varying Hare, to which alone the name should be restricted; the Common Hare should take Pallas's name, Lepus europæus.

  1. See 'Zoologist,' ante, pp. 45–6.
  2. Ann. Mag. N.H. (6), xx. p. 379, 1897.
  3. Mr. Miller, following Dr. H. Allen, recognizes under the name of Pterygistes, Kaup., a genus for noctula and leisleri distinct from Pipistrellus. But for the present it seems better that the distinction should remain in abey- ance until our knowledge of the exotic Pipistrelli is much further advanced.
  4. Even this is doubtfully British.
  5. 1895, p. 62.
  6. Kaup. Entwick. Europ. Thierw. p. 117, 1829. Leucorrhynchus, p. 118, and Hydrogale, p. 123, of the same work, become synonyms of Neomys. They would all antedate Crossopus. (See German text in BHL; Wikisource-Ed.)
  7. 1895, p. 177. In his adverse note on this paper, Mr. Harting ignores the fact that, in Scandinavia at least, the Weasel does usually have some black hairs at the end of its tail. Shortly after the paper was published Dr. Collett was good enough to send to the British Museum a Weasel agreeing exactly with Linneeus's diagnosis, and this specimen I should be delighted to show to anyone still doubtful about "Mustela nivalis."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1933, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 89 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.