Clumping of animals
Posted: 20 December 2012 02:13 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Zoologists have means of grouping animals based on the fossil record and genetic analysis. In modern phylogenetics and taxonomy, it is preferred to apply names only to clades, that is, to groups of animals defined by common descent from some known or hypothesized ancestor. Another term for a clade is a monophyletic group.

This is all good and sensible, but naturally in ordinary language we have all kinds of group names. “Sea creatures” is a perfectly useful term, but of course it includes animals that are not very closely related at all: molluscs and arthropods and vertebrates and goodness knows what, but not _all_ molluscs and athropods and vertebrates and GKW. “Sea creatures” is thus a paraphyletic group. Some older, formal group names in zoology, such as Reptilia, are also paraphyetic, but it does appear that they have stuck and it is too late to dislodge them from the collective minds of zoologists, despite efforts by hardline cladists.

The order Anura is divided, in English, between frogs and toads. This division is mainly made on the basis of dryness of the skin and affinity to water but there are some odd exceptions. As you might expect, the division is somewhat arbitrary and superficial. The toads are not a clade: there are amphibians we call frogs that are closely related to other amphibians we call toads, but not very closely related to certain other “frogs” (if you see what I mean.) Importantly, he said, drawing closer to his point, some languages do not make this distinction at all. I believe in Greek, all of these are called βατράχια. In Spanish the distinction exists (ranas versus sapos) but the boundaries between the groups are not the same as they are in English!

Sometimes, zoologists use a common name that has been used paraphyletically by general speakers, to denote a monophyletic group, by using the modifier “True”. e.g. members of the family Bufonidae are called “true toads”.

In Australia, we have a number of species of large monitor lizard, that we clump as “goannas” in English. (Goanna derives ultimately from iguana.) The largest kind of these is the perentie: we consider the perentie to be a kind of goanna. In aboriginal languages such as the evocatively named Western Desert Language, the perentie is labelled as a different kind of animal from the goanna.

In Malay and Indonesian, kambing can be either goat, lamb or the adults of small varieties of sheep (though note, there are other words for a large sheep, but not to my knowledge other words for goat). This might seem whacky to an English speaker but it is worthwhile noting that the sets of goats and sheep in English are also a bit jumbled. The sheep most of us are familiar with is the domestic sheep, covered in fluffy wool, but the wild sheep (same species, but non-domesticated) are straight-haired. The Barbary sheep are less closely-related to the domestic sheep (or to the non-domesticated members of the same species) than to the domestic goats.

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Posted: 20 December 2012 03:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The radio show/podcast A Way With Words recently had a caller who discussed encountering the word scorpion to refer to a type of (non-poisonous) lizard. This usage is found in the American South and is well covered by DARE.

The conclusion on the show was that the common names for animals were unreliable guides for taxonomy, which is why biologists use the Latin names.

But even the Latin names can be confusing. Yesterday, I was listening to another podcast, Monstertalk, which featured a biologist who had recently consulted with Merriam-Webster regarding the definition and usage of various biological terms. But the Latin nomenclature is subject to change when we discover previously unknown relationships between species. For example, I learned from that podcast that the term hominid is out of fashion among biologists. Instead, hominan is used to refer to all species of the genus homo, which excludes many human ancestors. Hominin is used to refer to modern humans and non-Homo human ancestors like the australopithecines, basically all the species in the human family after the split from chimpanzees. Hominines are a slightly larger group that includes chimps. And hominids is now being used for the even larger group that includes gorillas and orangutans.

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Posted: 20 December 2012 07:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m kind of scratching my head. Why should common names and groupings have anything to do with scientific names and groupings? They serve two different purposes. We use different names for the same thing all time depending on purpose.

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Posted: 20 December 2012 06:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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"Why should common names and groupings have anything to do with scientific names and groupings?”

Beats me. Is there someone who thinks they should?

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Posted: 21 December 2012 05:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I’m kind of scratching my head. Why should common names and groupings have anything to do with scientific names and groupings? They serve two different purposes. We use different names for the same thing all time depending on purpose.

Absolutely. I mean, horses are odd-toed ungulates, which is a classification useful in zoology , but quite meaningless to anyone drafting legislation on what kinds of animal may be kept by private individuals without a special licence, for example.

In Malay and Indonesian, kambing can be either goat, lamb or the adults of small varieties of sheep (though note, there are other words for a large sheep, but not to my knowledge other words for goat). This might seem whacky to an English speaker

It doesn’t seem remotely whacky to me. Sheep and goats are not only zoologically very closely related; they fill almost the same ecological & economical niches. You can shear or pluck the raw material for textiles from them; you can get milk from them; you can eat them - even using the same recipes to cook them. Makes perfect sense.

And in fact the best-known saying in our culture about sheep and goats derives from precisely this fact:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.

A simile that would be quite meaningless if Middle Eastern shepherds didn’t normally herd their sheep and goats together, and treat them alike.

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Posted: 09 January 2013 06:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Syntinen Laulu - 21 December 2012 05:05 AM

Sheep and goats are not only zoologically very closely related; they fill almost the same ecological & economical niches.

Archaeologists often find it almost impossible to distinguish the bones of sheep from the bones of goats.

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Posted: 10 January 2013 08:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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The Jewish dietary laws laid down in Leviticus etc are interesting. They didn’t have the specialised vocabulary or knowledge we now do so the proscriptions are tortuous and ill-defined though often practical in hot lands where food poisoning from particular foods was common. Bats are classified as birds, for example, and elsewhere whales as fish.

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