Skip to main content

Archive - January 2022

What is Taxonomy?
Taxonomy is the science or technique of classification.

In biology, it is the science concerned with the description, identification, naming and classification of organisms.

The work of classifying organisms is done by scientists called taxonomists. Taxonomists separate types of organisms into a ranking system of more and more specific groupings.

Classification groupings can be confusing, so we are going to start with the seven main categories: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species.

The ranking system allows taxonomists to group organisms based on their characteristics and evolutionary relationships. For instance, organisms in a single “order” are more closely related to each other than to organisms in any other “order.” Within an order there will be one or more “family” groups. The organisms in a single “family” are more closely related to each other than to organisms in any other “family.” The number of types of organisms in each category gets smaller as you progress from kingdom through species. The genus and species categories together provide the scientific name of a single type of organism.

Figuring out how an organism should be classified is not easy. Scientists look for structural and genetic similarities among organisms that they classify together but differences and similarities among living things are not always clear-cut. Taxonomists sometimes disagree about the classification of types of organisms. As new information becomes available, they often revise where an organism is placed within the classification system.

For example, giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) and red pandas (Ailurus fulgens), which are not species found in Illinois, are mammals that were once believed to be closely related due to their appearance and other factors. They were both classified in the order of mammals known as Carnivora and were believed to be close enough alike to be categorized in the same family, too. The giant pandas shared some traits with raccoons and some with bears so it was difficult to say how they should be classified just by looking at their appearance. Genetic analysis has recently confirmed that giant pandas are bears (family Ursidae), and taxonomists have revised the species’ classification based on those findings. Red pandas have been reclassified into their own family, Ailuridae. Both species are still animals, vertebrates, mammals and carnivores, but they are different enough to place them into separate families.

Why Use Scientific Names?
Many organisms have more than one common name. For example, what some people call a woodchuck might be called a groundhog by other people. Some people even call this animal a whistle pig!

Freshwater drum, drum perch or sheep’s head are common names for a single fish species!

People might know a single tree species as downy serviceberry, shadbush or downy Juneberry.

Common names can be very confusing! Taxonomists use Latin words to give scientific names to organisms. Not only does this clear up the confusion over common names in any one language, but it also allows scientists who speak different languages to clearly identify an organism or group of organisms. They use Latin because it was the main language used by scientists when this naming system was developed.

For example, a coyote is referred to as Canis latrans. Canis is the genus name and latrans is the species name. The gray wolf, a closely related species, is Canis lupus. The genus and species names are always italicized or underlined. The genus name is capitalized, but the species name is not. Your scientific name is Homo sapiens.