Rafinesque’s Mammals

Science Center Objects

The Challenge: Taxonomic nomenclature relies, in part, upon an accurate taxonomic history in order to establish the correct name for a taxon. Constantine S. Rafinesque (1783–1840), was a knowledgeable North American natural historian who was is responsible for describing and naming such iconic American mammals as the mule deer [Odocoileus hemionus (Rafinesque, 1817)] and the white-footed mouse [Peromyscus leucopus (Rafinesque, 1818)], among others. Yet, many of his names have been lost or forgotten, leaving a gap in our historical perspective of the early development of science in the post-colonial United States. 

The Science: The current project seeks to seek out and accurately document all of the mammalian taxonomic names proposed Rafinesque, many of which appear in extremely obscure journals and other publications. The next step is to evaluate the names in their historical context. Although Rafinesque was a gifted field biologist, he could be extremely credible.  In at least two cases so far documented, he unknowingly described a series of new species based on the fraudulent accounts of others.  

The Future: This project will lead to a comprehensive evaluation of Rafinesque’s mammals that will contribute to our understanding of the accumulation of knowledge about the North American mammal fauna, as well as to the individual organisms themselves.