The author has worked in conservation and woodland management over many years.
In the Eighteenth Century, a Swedish scientist called Carl Linnaeus created a simple system to give unmistakable names to living things.
This page explains why this was necessary and why this classification system is still used today.
There are also plenty of examples of the scientific names of familiar animals.
Why Did Linnaeus Create his Classification System?
The Scientific Revolution in Europe, that began in the late years of the 16th Century, prompted people of all kinds to take an interest in the natural world. Across Europe scientific clubs and associations began detailed and systematic studies of plants and animals from a rational and scientific point of view.
One problem in the early days was that animals had different names in different countries. Often an animal had several different names in the same country. The animal pictured below was called a 'badger', a 'bawson' or a 'brock' in Britain. In France it was a 'blaireau', 'tesson' or 'taisson'.
This made it difficult for scientists and enthusiasts to talk about the results of their work on animals and led to a lot of confusion.
Linnaeus decided to clear away the confusion by giving every kind of animal a scientific name that would be recognized by anyone in the world.
Linnaeus went much further than this, though, and found a way to classify animals by studying their similarities
The Binomial Naming System
The first step that Linnaeus took when he created his classification system was to assign each kind of animal a name in two parts.
The Fennec Fox pictured below, for example is called Vulpes zerda.
Vulpes is a name given to all foxes, 'zerda' tells you that it is the Fennec Fox.
What is a Genus?
In the Linnaean system, very similar animals are assigned to the same genus. Unique members of that genus are identified with a species name.
For example, the genus for the most familiar kinds of bear is Ursus. The Polar Bear is Ursus maritimus. The Brown Bear is Ursus arctos . The American Black Bear is Ursus americanus
What makes a Species a Species?
Essentially, only individuals of the same species can breed together to produce offspring (though there are some rare exceptions to this rule like the Liger which is a cross between a Lion and a Tiger).
3 Members of the Genus 'Ursus'
Why the Strange Names?
Many scientific names are derived from Latin or Greek. Most educated Europeans in the time of Linnaeus would have learnt these languages and often Latin was used as a common language. Linnaeus produced all his written works in Latin. Swedish was not widely spoken!
Latin also offers a huge range of descriptive terms that are easily applied to animals.
Tyrannosaurus rex, for example, translates as 'king of the tyrant lizards'
The Linnaean System of Classification
Scientific, binomial, names are part of a wider attempt to group related animals together.
It was clear to the scientists of Linnaeus's time that some animals were very closely related and some were only distantly related.
A snake is more similar to a lizard than it is to a mouse. At the same time, a snake is more like a mouse than a fly. In order to group animals together in an understandable way Linnaeus came up with a system that managed to express the degrees of relatedness.
- similar species are grouped into a genus,
- similar genera are assigned to a family,
- similar families are put together in an order
- similar orders are grouped into classes,
- similar classes are assigned to a phylum,
- similar phyla come together to make a kingdom.
Scientists across the world accepted this system and it is still in use today. Most often the process of classifying a living thing is called 'taxonomy'.
In the past animals were assigned to groups on the basis of appearance, behavior and anatomy.
Nowadays, with advances in genetic science, there is more emphasis on evolutionary relatedness.This has led to living things being broken down into new groupings that Linnaeus would not have recognized.
For example, instead of the two Kingdoms- Plants and Animals- that Linaeus described there now several Kingdoms:
- Archaebacteria, very ancient bacteria
- Eubacteria, more advanced bacteria
- Protista, mostly simple unicellular organisms
- Fungi, mushrooms and toadstools. for example
Despite these changes the scientific naming system devised by Linnaeus survives intact.
Examples of Scientific Names of Common Animals
Common Earthworm (a night crawler in Europe): Lumbricus terrestris
Escargot (eaten in many countries) also known as the Burgundy Snail, Roman snail or simply, Edible snail: Helix pomatia
Arthropods are one of the most common kind of animal and include insects
- Honey bee: Apis mellifera
- North American Cockroach: Periplaneta americana
- European Wasp: Vespula germanica
- House Centipede :Scutigera coleoptrata
American bullfrog: Lithobates catesbeianus
Red-eyed tree frog: Agalychnis callidryas
- Great white shark: Carcharodon carcharias
- Atlantic Salmon: Salmo salar
- Channel catfish (most common catfish in the US): Ictalurus punctatus
American crocodile: Crocodylus acutus
Diamond back terrapin: Malaclemys terrapin
Ball Python: Python Regius
American wigeon: Anas americana
Short-tailed Albatross: Phoebastria albatrus
Passenger Pigeon: Ectopistes migratorius (now extinct)
Grey Wolf: Canis lupus
Kitti's Hog-nosed Bat: Craseonycteris thonglongyai. This is the smallest bat in the world and probably the smallest mammal wieghing around 2 gm.
Western Lowland Gorrilla: Gorilla gorilla
Human beings: Homo sapiens
You can browse mammal species here: www.bucknell.edu/msw3/
The Classification of Human Beings
- Kingdom: Animals
- Phylum: Chordata. Possesses a spinal cord.
- Class: Mammalia. Warm-blooded, bearing live young
- Order: Primates This includes apes, monkeys, gorillas as well as people
- Family: Hominidae. This means human-like and includes chimps and gorillas. It also includes 'Lucy' a famous human ancestor (perhaps)
- Genus: Homo Very similar to modern people and includes the extinct Neanderthals
- Species: sapiens.
So, the scientific name of modern humans is Homo sapiens
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 11, 2018:
Hello Will Apse, this is a great tutorial. Thank you.
James Brown from United States of America on February 26, 2013:
Great lesson - thanks for sharing.
Will Apse (author) on May 07, 2012:
I think you mean Gorilla gorilla and Canis lupus are so cute! And that is hard to deny.
Anonymous on May 07, 2012:
The gorilla and grey wolf are so cute!