The Naming of Species

Sunday, September 09 2007 @ 08:15 PM EDT

Contributed by: davidh

Taxonomy, Nomenclature and Speciation

It is likely only in the last few 10's of thousand years that man began to question the relationships between himself and nature. It is only with extensive world travel particularly spurred onward by seafaring nations during the last two millennia returning home with weird and wonderfully different creatures that we seriously began to collect the different living and ‘dead’ plants and animals. About 200 years ago the mounting collections of artifacts became recognized as national treasures and proof of the new lands conquered and explored.

Boxes, jars, rooms and buildings of exotic treasures needed to be organized. Organization began with labeling, lists, indexes and these eventually demanded an overview of how and why one plant or animal belonged in one file or the other. Certainly the boxes and individual creatures were bunched by Countries, or continents or islands. It was logical to put ‘cats’ together with other ‘cat-like’ creatures. Palm trees, while wildly different from different areas of the world, were clearly “palm trees” Some had glorious dates, others didn’t but they were still palm-like. Relationships and hierarchies just naturally grew. Jars, boxes and stuffed animals or dried plants just logically ended up in association with or next to other similar specimens.


The organizer of organizers was a Swedish botanist. He brilliantly detected the uniqueness, yet the similarities, of species. To define those species that shared common traits he first gave the name, the Genus. To those individuals that were obviously related and enough so that they carried the same Genus name, but at the same time were uniquely distinct he gave the species name. The Genus species, combined name because the stroke of ‘genius’ – the binomial nomenclature. Every species of the world is distinct and defined by these two names. No two species carries the same two names. This system stands today. By convention, the species name is not capitalized: Man: Homo sapiens


Ironically the biologists of the world that deal with naming of creatures are called taxonomists and, and quite extraordinarily among are group of world leades, they have accepted a complex set of rules and procedures for naming all living things. Of course science keeps adding new options, new ways asking questions and finding more details – and more questions. But their debates are about honing and refining these relationships.

Then came the big challenge. How would one arrangement lists of these distinct species? Linnaeus initially lumped them in groups of similar structures: plants or animals, with or without backbones, with scales, feathers, or similar teeth etc. were put into related categories.

These categories were initally named and arrranged from:

Kingdom: eg: plants or animals etc.
Phylum: eg. Backbones or no backbones etc.
Class: eg. Mammals, birds, reptiles etc.
Order: eg. Primates, Ungulates, Carnivora etc.
Family: eg. Monkeys & Apes, New World monkeys, Lemurs, etc.
Genus: eg. Homo, Pan, Pongo etc
Species: eg. sapiens, erectus, neanderthalensis etc.

Modern science, particularly influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary relationships, has continued to define and redefine the relationships as new technologies reveal closer and closer affinities and evolutionary relationships. The taxonomists who spend their life tracking these relationships have developed incredible refinements to these naming conventions to reflect the latest sleuthing technologies. For example, they have added sub-, super- or infra- names to almost every category. In short, the classification and nomenclature or naming taxonomy that defines the worlds creatures is now totally a reflection of the evolutionary phylogeny or relationships as they are best known at any time. This phylogeny defines where on the family tree a particular species is located -- who it is most closely related to..

The Bald Eagles Phylogeny: Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Kingdom: Animalia.
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes (recent DNA has suggested change to Chradriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Haliaeetus
Species: leucocephalus.

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Speciation is the process by which species develop. There is really no argument among scientists about whether speciation occurs or does not occur. It is a reality. The biological similarity of the genetic components of the worlds living creatures attests to our common ancestry.. And the diversity of historic and current species displays that 3 billion year record.

Many factors influence how natural selection drives speciation. That is fully another topic.

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David Hancock

Hancock Wildlife Foundation