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Environment & Wildlife, General

What’s in a Name and Does it Matter for Conservation?

September 25th 2023

Tagged: Conservation, Endangered Species, Wildlife

It’s clear that scientific names matter to conservation. Not only do they help us to organise and store our data, but they can determine the conservation status of a species and dictate the level of importance we assign it. The IUCN Red list, for example, is a comprehensive list of organisms threatened with extinction. Organised by their scientific names, the list is used to determine which species or regions need to be more strictly managed whilst monitoring those already under threat (there are currently more than 42,100). The IUCN is described as ‘the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species’, and it wouldn’t exist without semantics. 

However, this begs the question – are cultural names as important as scientific ones? 

WildcatWorkingAbroad Blogs‘Wildcat’, woodcat, or chat du bois?

Names with Germanic origins often denote the physical characteristics, biological features and distribution of a species or organism, but they can also shape common public opinions. Studies have proven that organisms with the words ‘rat’, ‘wild’ or ‘feral’ in the title evoke negative first-time connotations, causing us to naturally dislike what we are hearing. This means that, as conservationist and wildlife writer Roy Dennis has pointed out, “it matters to get the name right”. 

For some species such as Britain’s ‘rarest mammal’, the so-called ‘wildcat’, we may have got it wrong. The European wildcat (scientifically named Felis silvestris) inhabits forests in Europe, Anatolia and the Caucasus and shares a 10–15 million-year-old ancestor with the African wildcat F. lybica. It has risen in popularity amongst conservationists in recent years due to the significant habitat loss, fragmentation and hybridization with domestic cats that is threatening the key role it plays in the health of ecosystems across Europe. Despite being known as the ‘tiger of the Highlands’, wildcats are in actual fact shy, elusive and nocturnal. They can be found roaming the northern Scottish Highlands, where they are sighted occasionally and only in the night-time. As Dennis points out, ‘wild’ cats are not feral in the usual sense of the word, they don’t live in truly wild (though remote) places, nor are they deemed impossible to domesticate. 

The widely used term ‘wildcat’ has evolved from the French expression chat du bois, meaning ‘cat of the woods’, and its scientific name ‘sylvestris’ refers to woods as well, which is where the European wildcat has historically been located. Although they now have protected species status and are legally guarded by the Habitats Regulations Act of 1994, could adopting the term ‘woodcat’ encourage a greater understanding of this forest roaming feline, and subsequently more effective conservation efforts?

Controversial titles: science vs. society 

Animal names can be harmful not only for the species in question but in some cases for the cultures they intersect with. Take the colonially-inspired ‘Oriental rat flea’ (Xenopsylla cheopis), for example, or the small but destructive ‘Gypsy Moth’, with a scientific name Lymantria meaning ‘destroyer’ and an arguably problematic cultural title. This small but troublesome moth was first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, but since then its name has been changed so frequently that it’s caused confusion around the species’ taxonomy, with references placing it in all three of the Lymantriidae, Noctuidae and Erebidae families.

Leopard lying on the ground in BotswanaVolunteer with Leopards | Volunteer Botswana | Working AbroadConclusions

These examples are enough to prove that names are not always helpful and informative, but instead can be a reflection of societal attitudes, judgements, and standards that aren’t necessarily rooted in science or facts. We don’t want to constantly change the name of a species, but we do want to get them right for the sake of our own understanding. If we are perceiving an animal less favourably, due to its (possibly misinformed) name, then conservation efforts can be hindered as a result. 

So what’s in a name is more than science and categorisation, sometimes it’s preconceptions, public perceptions, and unhelpful judgements. Roy Dennis has spent his life campaigning and working to conserve the UK’s most vulnerable habitats, and in his book Cottongrass Summer he argues the time has come for a semantic re-evaluation of some of our most beloved species and organisms. 

Volunteer with wildcats

If you’re looking for an opportunity to work with truly wild cats in South Africa, you can volunteer for the Big Cat Sanctuary Volunteer Project in the heart of the Cape Whale and White Shark Coast by clicking here. Alternatively, you can sign up to work on rehabilitating wildlife in Costa Rica here, or provide medical care to vulnerable wildlife in Namibia here. Working abroad is a great way to both connect with and support animals – wild and tame. 

Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Anna Juliet Stephens

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