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Nomenclature / Taxonomy


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Because there are so many different kinds of living organisms, like different mammals, birds, fish, insects, plants, bacteria, fungi etc. it only seems logic to give proper and different names to them all.  Names like cats, dogs, mice, snakes, spiders and more specifically Baboon spiders or Leopard geckos are general names that people gave to animals according to country, language, race, religion, belief etc. General names are often confused, especially between scientists from different countries. Sometimes two different species look similar, but there are huge differences between them. It was mainly for this reason that a global naming system had to be used.

Figure 1: Carolus Linneeaus or Carl Von Linne (1707 - 1778)

The science of naming organisms is known as nomenclature and is part of taxonomy, which is the discipline of identifying and classifying organisms according to certain "rules". This all started when the so called Carl von Linne (1707-1778), Carolus Linneaus or Linneaus (Fig. 1) realized that the ever increasing number of animal species being discovered every day required a logical system of classification. He used Latin as the basis of his system.

The system Linneaus used, and that is still being used, is called the binominal or two-part name. For example the Leopard gecko’s binominal name is Eublepharis macularius. The first part of the name is the genus while the second part is the species within that genus. Organisms of the same species have the same characteristics and reproduce with one another, giving viable offspring, while organisms from different species have different characteristics and is usually unable to mate or produce viable offspring.

A genus (pl. = genera) is a grouping of related species with similar characteristics. It may be abbreviated with the first letter if it is already mentioned. For example, E. macularius, which still refers to Eublepharis macularius. Similar species are placed in the same genus, then similar genera go into families, families into orders, orders into classes, classes into phylums and phylums into the five different kingdoms (Table 1).

Table 1: The Five Kingdoms Of The World

  • small, simple single cell or prokaryotic
  • sometimes in chains or mats
  • bacteria and cyanobacteria (algae)
  • complex single cell or eukaryotic
  • sometimes filaments, colonies, or even multicellular
  • e.g. Amoeba and Paramecium
  • eukaryotic and multicellular (filamentous with specialized, complex cells)
  • cells are walled and organisms are non-motile
  • digest organic matter (food) extracellularly and absorbs the breakdown products
  • eukaryotic and multicellular (specialized, complex cells)
  • cells are walled and organisms are non-motile
  • photosynthetic
  • eukaryotic and multicellular (specialized, complex cells)
  • feed by ingesting organic matter (food)
  • lacks cell walls and organisms are motile
Occasionally there are populations of species that vary from one geographical area to another. This is for example where one population is adapted to one side of a mountain while the other is adapted on the other side of the same mountain. In such cases these species are given sub specific status and may be described as geographical races. A subspecies is given a trinominal (third) name for example, the Banded gecko, Coleonyx variegatus, has four described subspecies in the USA alone. The first subspecies to be described becomes the nominate subspecies and has its specific name simply repeated. In this case it is the Desert banded gecko, Coleonyx variegatus. Further subspecies include the San Diego banded gecko, Coleonyx variegatus abbotti abbreviated C. v. abbotti, and so on.

When a species or subspecies is unknown the genus or binomen is written out, followed by by "ssp." For example Coleonyx variegatus ssp. or Coleonys ssp.

The binominal or trinominal name is usually written in italics or is underlined to distinguish it from the rest of the text. The genus always starts with an uppercase letter and the species always starts with a lowercase. Two or more genera may contain the same species name. To distinguish a species it must have a genus in front, you cannot talk for example about a macularius in the gecko example above.

"If you think I should add more information to this section or think that something is incorrect, please contact me and let me know."

Last Updated 9 June 2004 by Renier Delport

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Related Topics:

Reptile Zoology
Photoperiod & Brumation / Hibernation

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Miller, Stephen A. & Harley, John B. 1999 Zoology, Fourth Edition, McGraw-Hill.

John Coborn, 1995 Breeding & Keeping Geckos, TFH Publications.

R. D. Bartlett & Patricia P. Bartlett, 1995 Chameleons, A Complete Pet Owner's Manual, Barron's Educational Books.

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