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This is at least partly an historical question, and I am not even remotely a biologist of any sort, so apologies beforehand if it's a little obscure.

I often wonder how many distinctions were made in pre-Renaissance times, between species of animals.

For example, though I'm sure there have always been those with enough of an interest in nature to tell subtle differences, how were lemmings or voles, for example, told apart from rats or mice? Or did this recognition of speciation only come later, once more detailed (intrusive) forms of analysis became common?

I've looked up the etymologies for vole, lemming and hamster and all are dated post-Renaissance, so at least in these instances it may be safe to assume that people might simply not have noticed the differences before closer study took place. But I guess there are other animals where the same question applies (particularly smaller, harder-to-scrutinise animals where there are a large number of species similar at a glance).

EDIT: Vole means field (same root as wold), giving rise to the 19th c. term volemouse, meaning that originally, mouse and vole were indeed seen as one and the same -- proof of point.

P.S. Of course, this question need not apply solely to animal species.

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2 Answers 2

The branch of science you are looking for is taxonomy, that is the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification.

Modern taxonomy was born from the studies of the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnæus (1707-1778), who first introduced, in his books Systema Naturae (Systems of Nature) and Species Plantarum (Plants Species) the now common binomial nomenclature where each different species is given a Latin name composed by two parts: one identifying the genus and one identifying the species.

For instance, various species of mice are in the genus Mus: the common house mouse is Mus musculus, but in the West Mediterranean you have another type of mouse, called Mus spretus.

Although this rigorous type of classification is quite recent, taxonomy existed much earlier.

Shennong, Emperor of China somewhere around 4000BC apparently tasted hundred of plants to test their curative properties. He wrote his observations in a book called the Shennong Ben Cao Jing.

On a similar note the Ebers Papyrus, dating ~1550 BC contains description of the properties of many plants.

To more "recent" times, around 300BC Aristotle was the first who actually classified animals (e.g. vertebrates and invertebrates) and his student Theophrastus wrote a classification of plants in his Historia Plantarum (Hystory of the Plants).

Some 400 years later Plinius in the Naturalis Historia (Natural History) enumerated many plants and animals and gave some of the first binomial names to certain species.

As to the point of how did they distinguish species: well, with their eyes and ears, of course! You can distinguish a mouse from a vole because it is skinnier and has a longer tail. Even more similar species can be easily distinguished without needing special equipment. A good birdwatcher can distinguish a chiffchaff from a willow warbler by listening to their songs, looking at how they behave how they fly, the subtly different tones of their feathers etc. We can do that now, without any special equipment, so they could before the Renaissance!

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Which is why I tagged my question, "taxonomy" in the first instance. I have rarely seen comparisons between similar groups of animals. I think that written descriptions tend to focus on the individual species being discussed, rather than comparisons of species (or genera) which may be similar to the one under scrutiny; although this sort of comparison is nearly always made where subspecies are described, in my (limited) experience. Where would you suggest I look, for comparisons as such (please do not direct me to Wikipedia)? –  Nick Wiggill Jan 6 '12 at 17:19
    
@Nick Wiggill: I am not aware of any ancient book that makes such comparison (this does not mean it does not exist, just that I don't know it!). Modern field guides usually do this type of comparisons. I don't think you will get a throughly comprehensive one though, you will need to get specific books for specific genera. –  nico Jan 6 '12 at 18:53
    
@Nick Wiggill: also, for sure certain species were just considered the same one until recently. Some species have been defined as different just recently since DNA analysis has become commonly available and cheap. –  nico Jan 6 '12 at 18:56
    
What you are looking for happens all the time when taxonomic groups are "revised." For example, a researcher in that area will review all of the species in a particular genus, and merge or split based on morphological, genetic, or other criteria. E.g., see the comments section of vertebrates.si.edu/msw/mswcfapp/msw/… where the elevation of Loxodonta cyclotis is mentioned. You can find recent revisions pretty easily using google scholar: scholar.google.com/scholar?q=vole+phylogeny –  kmm Jan 6 '12 at 18:57

If I understand John S. Wilkins' magnificent book on the history of the "species" concept correctly, the basis of biological taxonomy can be traced back to the Aristotelian idea of per genus et differentiam: you can define something as consisting of a general type ("a plant") with a difference ("made of wood") to define an entity ("a tree"), which could then itself become the general type for a more specific category ("an oak tree"). So the idea of an infimae species (an entity that cannot be split any further) has been around since antiquity.

Whether or not a specific group of people would have split similar-looking species is a bigger unknown. I can't find a good online reference for Aristotle's classification of living things; you can read a summary on Wikipedia. Sorry I can't be more helpful!

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