A Guide to Understanding Animals Scientific Names

In order to appreciate how animals have been named, it is first important to understand that there is a classification system by which all living organisms are categorized.

Carolus Linnaeus first devised the system during the 1700’s that is still in use today. Linnaeus understood the importance of having a standardized means of naming plants and animals that classified them by their related properties.

Within the plant and animal kingdoms there are a number of categories, all based on certain features that are observable. The largest category within the Kingdom is a phylum. Humans, for example, belong to the Cordata phylum, and we share this phylum with all animals that have spinal cords. There are just a few animals that have spinal cords who do not have backbones, hence the subphylum we belong to are the Vertebrates.

You many be noticing how these names sound like words you know. This is not a coincidence. Most traditional names given to both plants and animals have Latin and or Greek root words. English, being a romantic language has many words that are directly from Latin, and many, too from Greek origins.

The next category is class. Humans belong to the Mammalia class, as do all animals who have both body hair and mammary glands (females producing milk). So, as you follow the taxonomic tree from the trunk to the branches, each category excludes members based on characteristics. So, while we humans are in the same phylum as a snake by virtue of our backbones, the next category toward the end of the branches excludes snakes, fish, and birds by virtue of mammary glands.

The next main category is an Order. Humans belong to the Primate order. Notice how at each stage, the remaining members bear more and more resemblance to one another. The next category is Family, and ours is Hominidae. Again, notice the Latin origin “homo” meaning man.’ After Family come Genus and Species. These are the two final major categories that comprise the two-word or binomial name that is called the scientific name. Ours is Homo sapiens.

The genus species name always capitalized the genus name, and the species name is in lower case. In some instances, the scientific name of a plant or animal may belong to a subspecies. If this is the case, it is common to use the first initial of the Genus, which is capitalized, then the species and subspecies names are both lower case. This is more common to domesticated plants than anything else.

Nearly all traditionally named animals (as well as plants) have binomial genus-species names that come from Latin or Greek origins and have some literal translation that describe its bearer. If you want to understand an animal’s (or plant’s) scientific name, you can perform a Greek or Latin root word search on the web, and chances are, you will find a word combination that describes some aspect of the being.

Exceptions to the rule:
While the last paragraph describes the majority of naturally found animals and plants, there are exceptions. The first exception is when a genus, specie, or even sub-specie is named for the person who first discovered it. The second broad exception applies more to plants than to animals, but may also apply to animals who are broadly breed intentionally for certain features. These names, too, often reflect either the person who bred it, or may be a non-descriptive name assigned by the person or entity who bred it.