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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


True and False Animals

By Mark Carnall, on 10 January 2014

When the language of biology meets common parlance there’s often a lot of confusion. Biological nomenclature (often called the scientific name, we are Homo sapiens sapiens* for example)  is by and large controlled using strict rules, format and notations but there aren’t quite so strict rules when it comes to the common names of animals or groups of animals. Some animals we refer to by their taxonomic name, for example; Tyrannosaurus rex, Hippopotamus, Octopus** and Bison. For other animals however, their common, useful to most people and widely understood names create all kinds of problems for the pedantic as I’ve written about before when is comes to sea stars vs starfish. My colleague Jack Ashby wrote about when it comes to seals and sea lions. Consider also that a musk ox is a goat-antelope, horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs at all and the Grant Museum favourite: flying lemurs aren’t and don’t.

The idea of ‘true’ and ‘false’ animals can also be misleading and a lot of pub discussions/arguments/bets come from animals which aren’t what they are often called or even named. How do some animals end up as the ‘true’ and ‘false’ versions of their group. Let’s have a look at some ‘true’ animals and see how the philosophical concepts of truth has ended up in our zoological lexicons.

An imaginary conversation with our former curator

By Jack Ashby, on 19 December 2012

lankester in museumIn his role as Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at UCL from 1875-1890, E. Ray Lankester was responsible for the collection which we now call the Grant Museum of Zoology. Lankester was an extremely influential figure in evolutionary biology, and after UCL went on to a professorship at Oxford and then to direct the Natural History Museum. Something else that people like to say about him is that he was described as having “a head like a benevolent biscuit tin”.

When you visit the Grant Museum today you’ll see his influence all over the place – he put together the first formal cataloguing system (though his catalogue is a bit confusing as it includes labels for specimens he wanted to acquire as well as things that actually existed, and there is no way of telling which is which). Although he brought so many specimens into the Museum (including the famous Blaschka glass models), his most famous specimens are of the horseshoe crabs. He used the dissected specimen on display to demonstrate that they were related to arachnids, rather than crabs.

Why am I talking about Lankester? (more…)