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Binomial nomenclature: How scientists keep track of all the critters

Updated on November 23, 2014
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Binomial nomenclature

Everybody knows that a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat, so why do we need a hard-to-remember scientific name for them? Not all animals are as familiar as dogs and cats and many animals are known by several names. Sometimes the same name is used for more than one animal.

Back in the 18th century a scientist from Sweden named Karl Linnaeus, realized there needed to be a naming system that was universal that could be used anywhere in the world. Because almost all scientists back then spoke latin, Linnaeus used latin in his system and gave all plants and animals a pair of names to identify them. Since he used two names, the system is often called binomial (latin for two name.)

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Some of the names used for the animal on the above include groundhog, whistle pig, pot gut, woodchuck, ground squirrel, rock chuck. and marmot. There are also several other animals that go by some of these names.

You can see that it could be confusing when people think they are talking about the same animal, but they really aren’t.

That’s one of the reasons scientists use Binomial Nomenclature. When they say they are talking about a critter called Marmota flaviventris they know everybody is talking about the same animal.

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Hard to remember?

Some people think scientific names are too hard to learn and that they’ll never use them. Because many of these names are latin, it seems like a foreign language. What most people don’t realize is that they are probably already using many scientific names and have no problem remembering them.

For example flower names from Azalia to Zinnia and even Chrysanthemum are scientific names.

Every kind of plant and animal on the earth, even the ones that are extinct, has been given a scientific name, even the dinosaurs.

Tyrannosaurus rex is the scientific name of the critter in the picture on the right. Scientific names usually describe the animal being named. In this case, the word Tyrannosaurus means tyrant lizard and the word rex means king. Another word for tyrant is bully. That means that the Tyrannosaurus rex is really know as the king bully lizard.

Reminder
Division
Example
Kings
Kingdom
Animalia
Play
Phylum
Chordata
Chess
Class
Mammalia
On
Order
Carnivora
Fine
Family
Felidae
Grained
Genus
Felis
Sand
species
domesticus
Using the example of a common house cat .

Classification divisions

There are seven basic divisions in scientific nomenclature. These divisions are used to help put living things into groups of similar organisms. This makes it easier to sort them out and study them.

The divisions are Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and species.

An easy way to learn these divisions and their proper order is to use the sentence “Kings play chess on fine grained sand.” By using the first letter of each word in this sentence as a reminder for the first word of each division you can learn the divisions used by scientists to classify living things.

Why is classification important?

Classification makes it possible for us to sort and organize things. for example, imagine going to a library. Say you wanted a book on dinosaurs. You could look up the book on the library computer, find the book number, go to the appropriate shelf, find the book and check it out.

Now imagine a library that didn't have any type of classification. To find the same book you would need to go through thousands of unorganized books in hope of finding the one you were looking for. You would probably give up before you found it.

The divisions of scientific nomenclature

KINGDOM - Kingdom is the broadest division. The two best know kingdoms are Animalia (animals) and Plantae (plants.)

PHYLUM - This division groups organisms that have similar body types. Some examples are Chordata (animals with spinal cords,) Arthropoda (animals with exoskeletons like insects,) Conifera (trees that have pine cones,) and Anthophyta (flowering plants.)

CLASS - Some examples of classes in the Phylum Chordata include Aces (birds,) Reptilia (lizards and snakes,) and Mammalia (mammals like humans, dogs, and cats.)

ORDER - Some examples of orders in the Mammalia class include Primate (humans and apes,) Rodentia (rodents like mice and rats,) Carnivora (meat eaters like lions and bears,) and Artiodactyla (even toed hooved animals like cows and sheep.)

FAMILY - The most familiar of the families in the Order Carnivora are Canidae (dogs like wolves, coyotes and pet dogs,) Felidae (cats like lions, tigers and domestic cats,) and Ursidae (bears.)

GENUS - some examples of genus groups in the cat family are Lynx (bobcats and lynx,) Panthera (leopards, tigers and lions.)

Species - Different species of the genus Panthera include leo (lions,) tigris (tigers,) and pardus (leopards.)

Even or odd

One way animals are divided is by the number of toes they have. Animals in the order Artiodactyla have an even number of hooves on their feet. Animals in the order Perissodactyla have an odd number.

Artiodactyla examples: deer, cows, antelope

Perissodactyla examples: Horses, rhinos

Hippopotamus amphibius
Hippopotamus amphibius | Source

The long and short of it

Some scientific names are easy to say and remember. The longest scientific name is Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides. The common name for this critter is the soldier fly and it’s about the size of an average house fly.

The longest common name given to an animal is hippopotamus. The bobcat may have the shortest scientific name. Scientists call these forest cats Lynx rufus.

The biggest animal that has ever lived on the earth is the blue whale. These sea going giants can get up to 100 feet long. The scientific name for the blue whale is Balaenoptera musculus.

Nomenclature nightmares

Take a look at some very unusual critters that were created by morphing photos of different animals. Imagine you are the scientist who discovered them and try to come up with a name.

Abra cadabra

Not all scientists are stuffed shirt formal. Some like to have a little fun. Here are some scientific names that reveal the kid in all of us. If you don't get the pun, try saying the name out loud.

Scientific name
What is it?
Abra cadabra
A small clam
Apopylus now
A spider
Ba humbugi
A snail from fuji
Cyclocephale nodanotherwon
A scarab beetle
Eurygenius
Another beetle
Gelae baen
Another beetle
Kamera lens
A one celled organism
Lalpa lusa
A wasp
Pison eyvae
Another wasp
Verae peculya
Another spider

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