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Latin names, scientific classification, or taxonomy

I want to explore the 'Latin names', this is like many things more complicated looking than it really is, its very similar to the postcode system we use, and like the postcode, you don't have to allocate it, just use it.

Take a postcode, for example GL52 6TU, we can break this down to GL Gloucester area, GL52 is an area within the Gloucester delivery area,  6 is a sub area of this, and TU is the individual postal walk, so in 4 steps we got down to few houses, the house number or name giving the final 5th level. You see its just chopping areas into smaller areas. The 'Latin names' or taxionomy is the same, its just we use unfamiliar words instead of letters and numbers.

The entire naming system for plants, animals, birds, fungi etc,  works in a common way. Historically people got into the habit of using 'Latin' as a universal language, toady, like air traffic control we would have chosen English.

So lets start to untangle this code, and use the way birds are classified as our key.

Bird classification started in 1676, and developed further over time. With a standardised system in use today. Although there are a few peculiarities.

A long way back, people started to work out ways to divide up all living things into a classification system. Throughout history this has evolved,  and this has created an 8 tree that has 8 levels of division.

Most models include a top level of life, and a second of domain.

Below this we have the first that is of interest to us, Kingdom. Different systems have slightly different groupings, but in all 'Animalia' (animal) is the classification that includes all living wildlife.

The next level Phylum, (Division). Our selection here is 'Chordata', (cord) this relates to creatures that have a 'hollow dorsal nervous chord' including around 100,000 species.

The next level of interest to us is Class, Our selection here is 'Aves' (birds) technically to get from from Chordata down to Aves, we would discover a subdivision at Subphylum (subclass) = Vertebrata,  and the next breakdown as unranked = Archosauria, but this is more a process and not normally shown. Remember we don't have to allocate the class just look it up, if we want it.

We are now going to need to target a specific bird, and I have chosen the Robin.  A panel on the right shows the scientific notation for the Robin.

The next level is Order, and more than half of all the birds are in the largest order 'Passeriformes', which means perching birds. The robin is within this.

The next level is Family, the Robin is with  'Muscicapidae'  (old world flycatchers).

The next level is Genus, the Robin is within 'Erithacus', meaning a member of the thrush family.

And finally we have  Species.   'Rubecula' sometimes written   'E.rubecula'  or  'Erithacus rubecula'.

The problem many people have with these names is they think they either have to remember them, be able to recall them or to allocate them, and we don't need to do any of these. Just like a postcode we can look them up as and when required.

The easiest way to decode a name, for example Erithacus rubecula, is just to copy and paste it into the Google search box, and all the entries come up Robin.

A typical  species entry in Wikipedia

European Robin
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Muscicapidae
Genus: Erithacus
Species: E. rubecula
Binomial name
Erithacus rubecula
(Linnaeus, 1758)

Now if we have that licked, shall we move on to the Harry Potter latin spells!!!

See Also

Wildlife photography

Equipment suitable for wildlife photography

Bird and animal behaviour, Hides and camouflage

General tips on photographing wildlife

Introducing Birds

Squirrels and How to Photograph Them

Birds Species - the large list


By: Keith Park Section: Wildlife Key:
Page Ref: latin_names Topic: Wildlife & Animals  Last Updated: 03/2010

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