On the Beauty of
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. Sometimes the scientific name is called the Latin name, though often scientific names are based on classical Greek instead of Latin. The more technical way to refer to the scientific name is as the binomial.


In print, scientific names should be  either italicized or underlined.

Scientific names consist of two parts:

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, in North America five species of titmouse are recognized, and they are all members of the genus Baeolophus.

  1. The Tufted Titmouse is Baeolophus bicolor
  2. The Black-crested Titmouse is Baeolophus atricristatus
  3. The Bridled Titmouse is Baeolophus wollweberi
  4. The Oak Titmouse is Baeolophus inornatus
  5. The Juniper Titmouse is Baeolophus ridgwayi


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 Baeolophus bicolor, Baeolophus inornatus, and Baeolophus 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 has 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.


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.


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.


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 posting your IDs at the wonderful iNaturalist.Org website.