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Why Is Plant and Animal Taxonomy and Classification Important

It is safe to say that most people probably don’t want to try to memorize a bunch of Latin genus and species names for plants and animals. Most people have difficulties even pronouncing those names. Why, then, are the names used in taxonomy and classification of plants and animals important?

There are actually several reasons that taxonomy and classification are important, besides the fact that the taxonomy tends to make everything more orderly. We’ll focus on just two of the most important of the reasons.

Similarity in traits

The first is the similarity of traits or lack thereof. To understand this, it is first important to note that the scientific name is usually given in two parts; the genus and the species, in that order. The genus name always begins with an upper-case letter and the species name begins with a lower-case letter.

There can be many different species and subspecies within a given genus. However, all of them are likely to share a number of identifying traits. This is something that is good to know, even if a person has only a passing interest in a particular plant or animal.

For instance, the largest cat in the Americas is the jaguar, which has the scientific name of Panthera onca. The tiger (Panthera tigris), lion (Panthera leo), and leopard (Panthera pardus) all belong to the same genus, despite being old world cats. Although each of these cats is different in many ways, they are also similar in many ways. In fact, these are all called “big cats”. Among other things, all of these cats are capable of roaring.

The second largest cat in the Americas is the cougar (Puma concolor). This cat isn’t much smaller than a jaguar and it is actually larger than a leopard, yet it isn’t one of the big cats and isn’t closely related to any of the big cats. It belongs to a different genus, which also means that there are fundamental differences in traits. For one thing, cougars can purr and they can scream, but they are incapable of roaring like the big cats can. Simply by knowing the scientific name, it is possible to understand that there will be major differences between cougars and the other four cats mentioned.

Proper identification

The other main importance of taxonomy and classification, and the use of the scientific names, is in the identification of the species. It is surprisingly common for a common name to be locally used for two totally different species.

For example, if an article is written about a bird called a “robin”, the article won’t have a great deal of meaning without knowing if the reference is to the European bird with the scientific name of Erithacus rubecula, or to the American bird with the scientific name of Turdus migratorius. Both of these birds are called robins, but they don’t look much alike, are completely different species in different genera, and have substantially different habits.

Likewise, Laurus nobilis or bay laurel and Umbellularia californica or California bay are both called bay, but they are totally different unrelated plants. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is totally unrelated to garden cabbage (Brassica oleracea).

The point is that a particular plant can have a vastly different common name depending on the area or region it is found in. However, the scientific name is the same, regardless of where the plant is growing and even if it is found in a different country. In fact, this can be quite useful if a person is traveling from one region to another. In the United States, they might want to try a dish containing zucchini. In Europe, they might not know that a courgette is the same thing, but in both cases, the plant is a subspecies of Cucurbita pepo.

There are naturally other reasons that plant and animal taxonomy and classification is important. However, simply knowing and understanding these two major reasons should give people a great notion of why it is worthwhile to learn a little about that taxonomy.


What do you think?

19 points

Written by Rex Trulove

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  1. Biology for me was a disaster no matter how hard I tried. Would have been great to have a teacher such as you to sort of put things in perspective for me logically even though I still would have problems remembering all the names. Great article.

    • Biology isn’t too difficult to understand, but some of the names can be quite a challenge. Latin is a difficult language to master and Lord knows that I’ve not come close to mastering it. I don’t remember all the scientific names for various plants and animals, though I do have a few memorized. Still, when I write about a particular plant or animal, I endeavor to include the genus and species name in an attempt to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about what plant or animal I’m talking about. It is easy enough to look up the scientific name, after all.

      I didn’t use to do that. Then I found myself having to explain myself too many times in instances where the common names were used for totally different plants/animals. Even with my thick head, it didn’t take long to realize that it would be a good idea to include the scientific name. LOL

  2. Rex, You make some good points here. One problem with nomenclature in the United States was that our old friends Lewis and Clark went charging across the country naming animals right, left and centre without knowing the first thing about what they were seeing! Hence Americans think that the big hairy animals that roamed the plains were called buffalo when they were actually bison, which are not in the same genus as buffalo in other parts of the world.

    • That is true of explorers in general. Since few had along botanical or zoological experts, many plants and animals were misnamed. There are a number of plants and animals in South America and the Carribean that were misnamed by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and the names stuck. At least in the case of the American Bison, most people in America know that it is a bison, so anymore it is primarily called “buffalo” when it is sold in stores. lol

      Another example is elk/wapiti and moose/elk. That isn’t really a case of misnaming, though, but more of a difference in culture.

    • I was also aware of the “robin” problem, which I have always understood was caused by early settlers from Europe who missed seeing this familiar garden bird in their new home and gave the name to one that had a reddish chest, as a sort of reminder of what they had left behind.

      In the UK, robins often feature on Christmas cards, given that they are often seen hopping about in winter. Does the same apply in the US?

      • To a point, yes, but only to a point. American robins are migratory. There can be isolated pockets where there are a few that stay put all year long, but most migrate south in late fall. They are among the first birds that migrate back in the spring, so they are often seen as an early sign that spring is right around the corner.

        This stands to reason, too. American robins eat some small fruits and seeds, but they primarily eat invertebrates, especially worms. Fruits, seeds, and worms aren’t available in the winter here when the snow is one to two meters deep and the ground is frozen solid to a depth of six to ten inches. Through at least most of the north, it stays this way for the better part of two to three months. If the birds didn’t migrate, they’d starve.

        I am aware of chickadee’s being featured on a few Christmas cards here, though, since they do tend to remain, even in the winter. Being predominantly small seed eaters, they can find food even when there is a lot of snow on the ground.

        American robins do have an annoying trait, too. They love eating ripening cherries, strawberries, and so forth. The only way to protect crops in the home garden is to use netting over the top, to keep the robins out. Do your robins likewise become pests in home gardens?

        • “British” robins go for seeds and worms, mainly. They have a reputation for tolerating the presence of humans and can often be seen close by when someone is digging a vegetable plot so that they can dive in and take a worm that has been dug up. They are highly territorial, and will defend their territories against other robins. This means that a garden will often acquire its own robin, which will learn the habits of the gardener and act accordingly! Sometimes a robin will become “tame” and trusting to the extent that it will take food from your hand.

  3. Yeah, you are right. I find it difficult to memorize the names. Also I find it difficult to identify birds. Like the only robin that I would recognize is the one that tags along a bat. ( grin)

    Anyways, great info here. 🙂

    • If words are hard to pronounce, they will most likely be difficult to remember, so learning the pronunciation can be helpful. Until then, though, if you can learn to at least recognize the scientific name for a given plant, you are at an advantage.

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