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Scientific Names Classification and Nomenclature

Paul Chesterfield

All living things, whether plant or animal, can be identified uniquely by a scientific name within the standard classification system for all living things, the International Code for Zoological and Botanical Nomenclature. Scientific nomenclature provides a universal naming methodology that crosses barriers of language and interpretation. Among other things it makes it possible to in uniquely identify a species and learn about where and how it lives.

The scientific naming system that is used world-wide today was originally devised by the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus. Linnaeus proposed a two-part naming system with names derived from Latin or Greek. This works in a similar way to the naming system that we use to identify ourselves, with a Last Name (=Genus) and a First Name (=species). The Linnaeus system has since been expanded and modified as new species have been discovered and new ideas developed.

Using this system it is possible to classify any living thing using an hierarchical naming structure that progresses from the general to the specific.

Category Explanation Butterfly Example Notes
Kingdom The primary classification breakdown of living things. The main Kingdoms are Plants and Animals, but there are others covering algae etc. Animal Many-celled organisms requiring food in the form of organic substances originally created by plants.
Phylum A primary division of the Animal Kingdom. E.g. Arthropoda have jointed limbs and a hard exoskeleton, Chordata have a backbone. Arthropoda Arthropods are animals with jointed limbs and a hard exoskeleton
Class Insects, Reptiles, Mammals, etc Insecta Insects
Order Dogs and cats belong to the order of carnivores Lepidoptera Butterflies, Moths and Skippers1
Sub-order (or Superfamily) Butterflies, Skippers1 and Moths2 are sub-orders of Lepidoptera Papilionoidea Butterflies
Family Sharing basic characteristics. Lions, tigers, cheetahs, and house cats belong to the same biological family. Danaidae Predomiantly tropical and sub-tropical species, Danaidae have similar wing shapes and patterning and are slow-flying.
Genus Closely related species. Wolves and dogs are in the same genus, foxes are in the same Family but a different Genus.


Danaus Tigers or Milkweed butterflies

Genus names are usually italicised with a capital first letter.

Species Members of the same species have unique characteristics that they can pass on by interbreeding. Their offspring are of the same species. Members of different but closely related species, can sometimes interbreed, but their mixed-species offspring are usually infertile (e.g. horse + donkey = mule).

Species can be further divided into varieties, races, breeds, or subspecies.

plexippus4 The Monarch Butterfly

Species names are usually italicised and are all lower case.

Common Name Common or Popular names are easier to understand than Scientific names, but are open to misunderstanding.

Different common names may be used in different areas for the same species, or the same common name may be used for different species in different areas.

Monarch Butterfly Also known as the Milkweed Butterfly

1. Many books class Skippers as "primitive butterflies", but there is a growing argument that they should be considered a separate Order in their own right.

2. There are a number of Moth superfamilies, but "Moths" is usually used as a collective name.


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