IUCN Otter Specialist Group . . . leading global otter conservation Last Update: Thursday January 8, 2015
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Questions and Answers: In-Depth Responses

I am trying to figure out the etymology of "lutridae" and can't! I've seen the interesting explanation of "otter" and wondered if you could help! I'd be interested in learning the etymology of the other mustelidae subdamilies as well: Melinae, Mellivorinae, Taxidiinae, Mustelinae. This question came about because of a wonderful otter exhibit at the Phoenix zoo. My daughters and I were fascinated by them. We didn't know they made noises! Thank you for your time.

Emmy Ludwig MD, NY, USA, 5 Janury 2015

Response from Lesley Wright

Otters have a wide range of noises! Each of the species has their own set of sounds, and two in particular, Giant Otters and Asian Small-Clawed Otters, have wide vocabularies that people are trying to work out the meanings of. Most otter researchers will impersonate otters at the least excuse - my favourite is to make the sound of an angry giant otter every time my computer misbehaves! We have a whole subgroup that works on otter vocalisations.

Taxonomic names are governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, to ensure we all use the same names to refer to the same animals. The names are a mixture of Latin and Greek, because they were originally invented by Carl Linneus in Sweden, and at that time, all educated people were fluent in those languages. There is an agreed hierarchy and the name endings have been decided as part of that.

Mustelidae is the family name, which comes from the Latin name for weasels, Mustela. It was adopted as a description for all the weasel relatives in 1910. In Roman times, weasels and stoats were kept as working animals to keep down mice and rats in grain stores (before cats had come out of Egypt), so it is believed that Mustela means Mouse-catcher because the Latin word for mouse is Mus. So in modern usage, we refer to any animal in this group of animals as a mustelid, which isn't actually correct grammatically, but has become the convention.

Family names have -dae added to them hence Mustelidae. Under the Mustelidae family there are a set of sub-families. Not all animals have sub-families, but the Mustelidae are a very large group, superficially similar in shape but differing enough to need a finer classification. Sub-families have -nae added to their name so the proper name for the otter sub-famiy is the Lutrinae.

The otters are the Lutrinae, which comes from the Latin Lutra meaning otter. This is a very interesting word because it is part of the great Indo-European language group and very strongly related to the words for water - linguists look back down the development of language and find that the word for otter and the word for water because more and more similar the further you trace it back through precursors to Latin and back through Sanskrit and beyond. So it looks like our earliest ancestors simply called otters "water animals". If you collect the names of otters in all kinds of different languages, you frequently find it is very, very similar to that language's word for water. Here's a quote we found: "Old English otr, otor "otter," from Proto-Germanic *otraz (cognates: Old Norse otr, Swedish utter, Danish odder, Dutch otter, Old High German ottar, German Otter), from PIE *udros, literally "water-creature" (cognates: Sanskrit udrah, Avestan udra "otter;" Greek hydra "water-serpent," enydris "otter;" Latin lutra, Old Church Slavonic vydra, Lithuanian udra, Old Irish odoirne "otter"), from root *wed- (1) "water"

Likewise the "true" weasels, the weaselly weasels, are the Mustelinae - the mouse-harrying sub-family. They are also known as the Marten sub-family, though to be be honest they are all the mustelids that don't fit into the other sub-families, so there are a lot of species in this section.

The Mellivorinae are the Honey badgers, and the name literally means "honey-eater" (Melus is Latin for honey, from an earlier Indo-European root melit meaning sweet and vore as in carnivore from Latin vorare meaning to swallow or devour). And honey badgers are indeed honey-eaters.

The Melinae are the European badgers, whose Genus name is Meles. Pliny the Elder, who wrote a great (and entertaining but not very accurate) Natural History called the badger Ursus meles, the little honey-eating bear. Badgers are like small bears in a lot of ways but Linnaeus knew they weren't bears so seems to have chosen the second part to name the badgers. Being animals that live in Sweden, he was familiar with them. All the Swedish animals have the simplest most classical names because of the rule of first nomenclature - the first person to scientifically name a species usually takes precendence. You have to have a very good reason (such as realising that two apparent species are actually the same species, or that what was though to be one Genus is really two, and these days genetics has to back you up) before renaming a species, and wherever possible the earliest name will be preferred.

The Taxideinae are the American badgers, and are named after the Medieval Latin name for the badger, Taxus, derived from the Old High German word for badger, Dachs (same as modern German). Sometimes the European badger has been called Meles taxus just to confuse everyone! But the agreement now is that Meles is reserved for European badgers and Taxidae taxus for American badgers. The reason Taxidae is used for the genus is that Taxus had already been used for the Yew tree family, but in that case because Taxus is another of these words of ancient origin meaning yew tree and probably comes from Scythian but by the rules of first nomenclature, yew trees beat American badgers to the use of the name "Taxus"

There are also some "floaters": the Mephitidae or stink badgers from Asia are sometimes included in the Mustelidae as the Mephitinae, but sometimes are considered a family on their own; the skunks also sometimes hang out with the mustelidae but sometimes are put in their own family. Both these are waiting for the geneticists to sort out where they should be.

Lesley Wright

Response provided 6 Janury 2015