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On the Beauty of
SCIENTIFIC NAMES

Red-banded LeafhopperThe super-abundant House Sparrow, found in many parts of the world, goes by lots of common names. In Italy it's the Passera Europea, in Germany the Haussperling, in France the Moineau Domestique, and even experienced North American birders are often uncertain as to whether to call them House Sparrows or English Sparrows.

However, everyone in the whole wide world agrees that the bird known by all the above names is also known by the name of Passer domesticus. This is the House Sparrow's scientific name.

THE NAME'S STRUCTURE

In print, scientific names (also called Latin names) should be  either italicized or underlined.

Scientific names consist of two parts:

  • the genus name (the name's first part)
  • the species name (the second part)

Later we'll see that these names have a whole other dimension, but right now it's enough to know that the genus is "bigger" than the species. One genus may contain many species.

For example, there are three species of titmouse in North America, and they are all members of the genus Parus.

  1. The Tufted Titmouse's scientific name is Parus bicolor
  2. The Plain Titmouse is Parus inornatus
  3. The Bridled Titmouse is Parus wollweberi

DO ALL LOOK-ALIKE THINGS BELONG TO THE SAME GENUS?

You can see that, in a way, the genus is like the last name of a person, except that it's in the wrong place. Speaking of Linda Jones, Joe Jones, and Fred Jones is similar to speaking of Parus bicolor, Parus inornatus, and Parus wollweberi.

This is not to say that every closely related group of organisms goes by the same genus name. For example, among birds, the very large and look-alike group of wood warblers have been divided into several genera. The Yellow Warbler is Dendroica petechia, while the Wilson's Warbler is Wilsonia pusilla.

Why don't they make it so that each look-alike group has its own genus name? One reason is because often the members of a large, look-alike group, once you study them closely, are actually very different from one another. Another point is that superficial features such as skin or feather color are not considered important differences among species, while basic differences in anatomy or structure, such as beak shape and toe arrangement, are indeed important.

ARE SCIENTIFIC NAMES PERMANENT?

Unfortunately for us, even scientific names are not always absolutely unchanging and undebatable. For example, during recent years specialists lumped two bird species, the Yellow-shafted Flicker and the Red-shafted Flicker, into one species. Before the two flickers were lumped, the Red-shafted Flicker's scientific name was Colaptes cafer. Now that it is considered the same species as the Yellow-shafted Flicker, it is known as Colaptes auratus, which was the Yellow-shafted Flicker's name all along. The Yellow-shafted Flicker's name was chosen for both because it was published first.

At this early stage, don't worry too much about scientific names. Just know that they exist, notice them in your field guide, and be ready to use them if you ever become really serious about knowing any particular group of plants or animals -- especially if you travel to other lands, where common names will be almost useless.

PLAYING WITH SCIENTIFIC NAMES

You can have some fun with scientific names on the Web. For instance, if you are in North America and you identify a tree, weed or wildflower, you can go to the USDA's PLANTS National Database, type the scientific name of your new discovery into the search engine, and you may see a picture of your plant, plus links to more information on it! Something similar is possible at the Flora of North America and the Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants.

But maybe the most fun you can have with them is simply to type them into the search box of a good search engine such as Google™. If you have a scientific name handy, try it in the box below. If you don't, well here's one: Acer rubrum.

Google

When you land at the Google™ page, notice the "Images" tab. Click on it, type in a Latin name, and you'll probably see lots of pictures of the thing you've just typed in!

If you have succeeded in getting scientific names for plants and animals in your neighborhood you may be interested in trying for our famous Bug-Eaten Leaf Award!

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Conrad, Jim. Last updated . Page title: . Retrieved from The Backyard Nature Website at .