Naming Nature

Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the Swedish physician and botanist, was best known for three things: his intensive work to classify (or categorise) the known natural world; his introduction of the binomial naming system (meaning ‘two words’, i.e. genus and species) for plants and animals; and standardising the language used in scientific naming, which greatly improved communication between naturalists. Linnaeus based his descriptions of new species on specific specimens or illustrations, many of which were later designated as the type specimens for those species.

Regnum animale from Linnaeus, Systema naturae (1st edition)

'Regnum animale', Carl Linnaeus,Systema naturae, 1st ed. (1735, BL.1181)

The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was 28 when he first published his classifications of the three kingdoms of nature, as they were then understood: the kingdoms of minerals, vegetables and animals. Systema naturae (1735), or The system of nature, was published as a large folio format, and contained only 11 pages. By fitting each kingdom’s classes, orders, genera, and some species in a table that filled a double-page spread, Linnaeus introduced the world to his systematic and efficient systems that would change the way we think about the order of nature. His contemporaries likened the tables to maps that could be displayed on walls, enabling one to grasp at a glance the organisation of nature. His most successful system was his sexual system of classifying plants, based scandalously on the sexual organs of plants. The animal kingdom is the page displayed here, and it too had a huge impact: Linnaeus was one of the first naturalists to place humans within the class of Quadrupeds and the order of Anthropomorpha, next to apes (Simia) and sloths (Bradypus). He also placed mythical animals such as unicorns or the hydra in a box he called Paradoxa. Linnaeus went on to publish 12 successive editions of Systema naturae in his lifetime. After the 6th edition, the Paradoxa box disappeared, thereby confining mythical animals to legends. By the 10th edition (1758), Linnaeus changed Quadrupeds to Mammals, which meant that whales and dolphins left the class of fish to join mammals; Anthropomorpha became Primates; and, as Linnaeus applied his new binomial nomenclature to all organisms, humans were named Homo sapiens.

Ipomoea carolina from Catesby, The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

'[Convolvulus minor pentaphyllos]', Georg Dionysius Ehret (artist), Mark Catesby, The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Vol. 2, Pl. 91, (1743, RFF.731/743)

As with Merian's Metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium (see below), Mark Catesby's (1683–1749) best-known work, The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, really focussed on the animals he was describing, yet the plants were by no means just 'supporting players'. The Convolvulus minor pentaphyllos (current name: Ipomoea carolina), or tievine, depicted in this plate was drawn for Catesby by the brilliant botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708–1770). Linnaeus used this plate to describe this species of morning glory in his ground-breaking botanical work, Species plantarum (1753). It is now the lectotype for the species. Also included in this plate are Caryophyllus spurius inodorus (current name: Cordia sebestena), or geiger tree, and Phalaena ingens caroliniana (current name: Antheraea polyphemus), or polyphemus moth.

Musae from Trew, Plantae selectae quarum imagines

'Musae...', Georg Dionysius Ehret (artist), Christopher Trew, Plantae selectae quarum imagines, Pl. XXIII (1752, FF 914.21:58.006 TRE)

The edible or dessert banana (current name: Musa × paradisiaca) shown in this plate drawn by Georg Dionysius Ehret is the lectotype of this hybrid species. Bananas have a long and complicated history of domestication, and many taxonomists now treat Musa sapientum as falling within the variation of M. paradisiaca. The current name of Musa × paradisiaca recognises its hybrid origins. Linnaeus himself also has a long history with bananas! By mimicking the conditions found in its native habitat, he was able to get a banana plant to flower and fruit in the garden of George Clifford (1685–1760), the then-director of the Dutch East India Company. Clifford's Hartekamp estate was in Holland, and it was allegedly the first time a banana plant had fruited so far north. News of the success spread and Linnaeus eventually published Musa Cliffortiana, also illustrated by Ehret.

Marquiaas from Merian, Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium

'[Marquiaas]', Maria Sibylla Merian, Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium, Fig. 21 (1719, RFF.719)

This plate depicts the plant species Passiflora laurifolia, or yellow granadilla, named by Linnaeus, and is taken from German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian's famous work on insects, Metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium. Merian (1647–1717) illustrated the work herself, and while the publication mainly focussed on the insects, her botanical drawing is also quite stunning. Linnaeus cited many of the copperplates found in this work when classifying botanical species, including this one, Fig. 21, which was designated as the lectotype for this species of passionflower. The species is native to Bolivia, Colombia, Panamá, Peru, and Venezuela, but has been introduced to many other countries.