Every scientific name has two parts, the genus and the species. Unrelated animals cannot share the same genus name, and the first-named takes priority: Platypus, the name given first to a beetle and later to an Australian mammal, now only means the beetle—in science. Scientists now call our “platypus” Ornithorhynchus, but Australians couldn’t be bothered.
|Lesueur's image of platypodes (or platypuses):|
I never would cry
|One of our friends from the North Head Sanctuary.|
The French scientist, Georges Cuvier suggested calling it Echidna, which was the name of a serpent in Greek mythology. Sadly, this name was later found to have been given twenty years earlier to a moray eel, and so the animal ended up being called Tachyglossus, except with Australians, who had already adopted ‘echidna’ as the common name, and stayed with it. (That is, the scholars called
them ‘echidna’: the common folk knew them as the spiny ant-eater and in the same way, the platypus was the water mole.)
According to legend, a cask reached Newcastle-upon-Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society in late 1799. It was sent to the society by a new corresponding member, John Hunter, at that time the governor of New South Wales. The cask was filled with spirits, a platypus (at that stage unnamed) and what Hunter said was called either a womback or a wombach.
A woman servant was carrying the cask on her head, when the bottom of the cask caved in, drenching her in smelly spirits, a chunky wombat and a platypus that, to an untrained eye, must have looked like a creation of the devil.
We know the name wombat must have become known only in 1798, because an expedition of convicts returned to Sydney in February of that year, and mentioned dining on ‘a kind of mole’: it was what we would call a wombat.
The leader of the expedition, a former convict named James Wilson, was also an initiated man of an unidentified Aboriginal tribe, near Sydney, and it was probably he who provided a local name wombach for the ‘mole’.
|One of the earliest images of a wombat, prepared in London and quite wrong.|
Even earlier, in 1800, probably working from the specimen that fell on the servant’s head, zoologist George Shaw had described it under the name Didelphis ursina (meaning ‘bearlike possum’). He called it the “largest of all the Opossums”. Note the species name, because that part survives to this day.
Now the tricky bit: another French scientist named Geoffroy managed to give the wombat two separate genus names in two years, 1802 – 3 and 1803 – 4. (He used the new revised Republican calendar, and these were years 11 and 12 on that scale.) Whichever way, he got in first, dubbing it Vombatus in year 11, and Phascolomis in year 12.
Geoffroy does not appear to have given a species name, but that matters little because Shaw had assigned a species name two years earlier, and that was still legitimate. So we use Geoffroy’s genus, but the common wombat is Vombatus ursinus today (the last tricky bit is that Latin names have a built-in gender at the end, and so ursina had to become ursinus to match the masculine Vombatus). It took some time for people to stop calling the wombat Phascolomis or Phascolomys, but it did happen, eventually.