Zoology is the study of function, behavior, evolution, and conduct of animals. Man has always been fascinated by and curious about animals. Prehistoric man covered cave walls with portraits of animals that existed at that time. Today zoology is a thriving science with many subdivisions that study specific aspects of animals and specific species and groups of animals. Although science has come a long way from crude sketches and simple observations, at its heart it is still a reflection of humanity’s ongoing fascination with the other species that share the planet.
Early civilizations including the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Indians all wrote documents describing the animals in their areas. One of the best known volumes is Aristotle’s History of Animals. In it, he describes approximately 500 different species. He also created the first classification system. Ctesias and Herodotus also wrote about animals. It was around this time that zoology truly became a science. In Roman times, Pliny the Elder, a natural historian, produced a 37 volume book called Historia Naturalis.
With the advent of Christianity much of the western world turned its focus to the animals in the Bible, both real and fictional. The Physiologus became a prominent book describing these species and remained in use until the early 1700s. One Dominican friar, Saint Albert Magnus, used the works of Aristotle to create an opus of his own devoted to zoology and the animals surrounding him in the 13th century. Known as De Animalibus Libri XXVI, the 39 volume set was widely used for several centuries. Magnus also inspired his protégé, Saint Thomas Aquinas, another noted natural scientist. The Arabs and other eastern cultures continued a more scientific approach but there were not widespread changes in zoology until the beginning of the Renaissance in the 1400s.
At this time universities began to be shaped and cropped up across the world. In 1651, The German Academy of Sciences opened with an exclusive devotion to the study of animals and plants. Shortly afterwards, Britain’s Royal Society opened its own school followed by another one in Paris, France. Da Vinci’s autopsies of humans and scientific inquiries and, in the 1500s, the discovery of the microscope began a dramatic series of changes for all biological sciences. Zoology began to be subjected to more rigorous scientific scrutiny. Then, in 1555, Conrad Gesner published Historia Animalum, which would become the gold standard in zoology for the next two hundred years.
Carl Linnaeus proposed his classification system in the 18th century and it is still in use today. It uses two latin names to describe an animal, the genus and the species name. The concepts of genetics and evolution, courtesy of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, would revolutionize zoology and most biological sciences.
The twentieth century saw the beginnings of animal behavior and ecology as fields of study. The ongoing advances in genetics and the increasing ability of people to explore the far reaches of the world would continue to lead to new advances and discoveries.
Today, fields such as biodiversity and topics such as extinction play as big a role in zoology as the discovery of new species. It is a diverse science, studied by millions of people around the world and we are still discovering new species.