The scientific names assigned to animals often have intriguing origins, which can be revealed by books in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ collections. The Pallas’s Cat of central Asia, for instance, is named after German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811), the first person to publish a detailed description of the animal. Although he was not fully aware that the curious creatures he had seen during his travels were a new species, Pallas’s account and his accompanying illustration were definitive enough to establish the foundation for the scientific record. Pallas spent much of his life in Russia, where he conducted expeditions in search of new and unusual animals and plants. In his account, Travels through the southern provinces of the Russian Empire in the years 1793 and 1794 (originally published in German in 1799-1801), he speculated that the mysterious felines known today as the Pallas’s Cat (Felis manul) were the half-wild offspring of a local nobleman’s pet:
“A particular species, or mongrel variety, of the domestic cat, engaged a considerable share of my attention. It was the offspring of a black cat which belonged to Yegor Michailovitch Shedrinskoi, Counsellor of State, and had kittened three young ones that exactly resembled each other. Their mother lived alone in the village of Nikolskoi, in the district of Insara, on this nobleman’s estate, and often retired to a young forest, behind a garden which is laid out in the English style. The domestics had remarked that this cat was absent during th rutting season; and it was also reported that she formerly had kittens of the common kind, which she devoured a few days after their birth. I saw two of her brood in the house of Counsellor Martynof, and one in that of the Lord-lieutenant. The form of this cat, and particularly the nature and colour of the hair, exhibited so extraordinary an appearance, that I was induced to give a representation of it in the first plate. It is of a middle size, has somewhat smaller legs than the common cat, and the head is longer towards the nose. The tail is thrice the length of the head. The colour of the body is a light chesnut brown like that of the pole-cat, but blacker on the back, especially towards the tail, and paler along the sides and belly. … The exquisite olfactory sense, agility, and other characteristics of these three animals, are similar to those of the common cat. But they had been extremely wild at first, hid themselves in cellars, and holes, nay even burrowed under ground, and had not yet acquired the sociable qualities of our domesticated cats. I shall not attempt to determine whether they may be considered as a mongrel breed.”—Diane Shaw
(From v. 1, p. 48-49 and plate 1, of the from the 2nd London ed.; held by SIL’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, qDK509.P3513 1812 v. 1-2 CHMRB)
More information about the Pallas’s Cat can be found on the Biodiversity Heritage Library website at http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/name/Felis_manul, where scanned volumes from SIL and the other BHL partner institutions can be consulted.