NATURE NOTE - Number 73                                                            July 28, 2023


Sometimes there are “nature things” that may be a little over the head of many young scouts.  This NOTE is to give adults a little background that might help explain some parts of nature to scouts, or provide a better understanding for their own use.  You don’t need to master the details, just understand some of the basics. This is certainly the case as we talk about…

Our Current Topic:  Scientific names of plants and animals

We might also describe this as the classification of plants and animals, something that most scouts will not have been exposed to.  While they know that all birds are not alike, they have not considered that there are “official” differences between them.  Also, they may have noticed those strange Latin names in a field guide, but they don’t know what they mean.  And let’s acknowledge upfront that this explanation is going to be rather simple and will leave out some categories, but I think it’ll help you understand the system. 

Generally, all living things are in the plant kingdom or the animal kingdom (level 1).  Next we split kingdoms into phyla (level 2).  This splitting of higher groups into lower groups by scientists is called taxonomy.  As in all of the groupings, those living things in a phylum will have some basic common characteristics.  For example, all members of the animal kingdom can move in some way.  Plants can’t.  Those animals in phylum Chordata have a back bone or vertebrae.  Animals that are not Chordata are generally much simpler life forms which we will exclude here, except for insects discussed briefly below.  Beneath the phylum is the grouping called class (level 3).   This is where you start to see some animal groupings familiar to us:  fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.  These classes are then split into orders (level 4).  A good example is in birds:  the order Struthioniformes (ostriches) and the order Passeriformes (perching birds), are both in the class Aves, but there are obvious significant differences between these orders.  In the mammal class, one order is Carnivora – flesh eaters.  Cat-like and dog-like mammals both fit in this order, but lions and your Tabby are of the family (level 5) Felidae, while wolves and coyotes are the Canidae family. While family members might look and act similar in many ways, taxonomists divide these family grouped animals in genera (level 6) and then the lowest classification, species (level 7).  Canis is the genus of both wolves and coyotes (and the family dog), but the Gray wolf is Canis lupus (the species) and the coyote is the species Canis latrans based on established scientific differences.   Notice how the genus is always capitalized, and the genus and species are always italicized.  It’s the rule.  Going back a bit, insects (a class) are not Chordata as they do not have a backbone.  They are of the phylum Arthropoda which includes insects, lobsters, spiders, millipedes, and others, all with an exoskeleton.  Insects, because of their segmented body, 6-jointed legs, and other unique characteristics, are in a separate class called Insecta, from 8-legged spiders that are in the class Arachnid.  Sometimes small differences divide animals (or plants) into separate classes or orders.  For example, flies and bees may look similar, but flies are in the order Diptera and bees are in the order Hymenoptera because of different characteristics.

Plants are a little trickier, but they follow the same idea.  Let’s stick to trees to keep it easier.  Using a white oak tree (species Quercus alba) as an example, and starting from the bottom up, the genus Quercus includes all oak trees.  The family Fagaceae includes oaks, beech and chestnuts.  The order Fagales contains this family as well as many other common trees such as walnut and birch.  The next higher level is class.  Here we encounter Angiosperms (flowering plants) and Gymnosperms (cone bearers), which are sometimes called plant divisions, within the phylum Tracheophyta.  This phylum contains plants with a vascular system, including most plants we commonly encounter.  Mosses, algae, fungi and other simple plants make up other non-vascular plant phyla, including microscopic plant-life.   

Scientists frequently argue over scientific names and change them periodically as they learn more about the plant or animal characteristics.  And in some cases they have developed sub-groups when their systems don’t quite fit.  So why do we have scientific names?  Why can’t we just call a white oak a white oak? Because over many years and many localities, the same identical plant or animal may have several common names, and that can get confusing.  For example, the tulip tree, the yellow poplar and the tulip poplar, are all the same species, but referred to by different common names.  When we call it by the agreed upon scientific name, Liriodendron tulipifera, the species is firmly identified for everyone.  Think of the wood chuck, ground hog or whistle pig.  All are same mammal: Marmota monax.  

So how do these scientific names come about?   The genus and groupings above are based on established characteristics.  But a scientist that discovers a new species usually gets to name the species.  Just like the other scientific names, this is a “Latinized” version of the name selected. This name may be based on the location of the discovery, such as Cornus florida (dogwood), or the discoverer, such as Magnolia frasier, (Frasier Magnolia) or a characteristic of the species, such Silax nigra (Black Willow).  Grab a field guide and look up some plants or animals and check out the scientific name just for fun.  This naming system was established by a Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus in the mid-1700’s and has stood the test of time – mostly – ever since. 


As I said at the beginning, most young scouts are not going to be interested in all of this, but it might become helpful to you in explaining the naming system of certain plants and animals, and also exposing them to the fact that plants and animals all over the world have names that connect them to their relatives in other parts of the world that have similar characteristics.  The only place this comes up in a scouting is in Mammal Study Merit Badge, so maybe you can apply some of your knowledge to help a scout working on this merit badge.  Often just pursuing one part of the giant nature puzzle can open doors into more nature questions and leading to more pursuit.  So take what you can from this NATURE NOTE and use it when you can.  And don’t worry too much about all the little details.  Have fun in exploring the names of “nature things” and don’t forget to italicize your own scientific name:  Homo sapiens.

Drop notes and thoughts to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and thanks for reading NATURE NOTES. 

Bob Garst