Classification - What's in a Name

“Why do we use big names that are hard to pronounce?” Before the 1700s there was no classification system. People did not know that some animals were related and are thus family and others were not.

Carl von Linné was a Swedish Biologist who decided to put all plants and animals into different categories. He later also changed his name to fit in with the scientific naming he gave to the plants and animals and named himself Carolus Linnaeus.

If we think of people, at first we had only one Adam, now we have many. That is why we have surnames, so we would know which one we are talking about; Adam Smith or Adam du Toit. Putting plants and animals in categories made us understand where they fitted in and who they were related to. Very much like a family tree.

This putting into categories we call classification. All these categories have different names. We start with the two huge main categories; the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom. From here we look at smaller and smaller groups until we get the animal or plant we are looking for.

When we study a certain animal or insect we look at something that they all have, like six legs and then work from there to something only a few have, like clubbed antenna. Let's look at butterflies for instance. They belong to the kingdom animals, because they can move and breathe.

A category below that is the Phylum Arthropoda - meaning they have legs that have joints but no backbone like humans do. A smaller category is that they belong to the Class Insecta or insects. Some things that insects have in common are that they have six legs that have joints in them and some may have wings.

The main characteristic is that all insects have six legs. A smaller group below this is the Order Lepidoptera; that is insects with scales on their wings. (In Latin 'lepi' means scale and 'ptera' means wing.) These insects are butterflies and moths.

To distinguish between these two, we look at the antenna. Butterflies have clubbed antenna, like the tip of a matchstick and moths have pointed antenna, like the point of a needle or a furry antenna. If we look at a specific butterfly's scientific name we find that we first write down the genus then the species name. That is like saying your surname first and then your name; du Toit, Adam.

Another reason for the classification is that if we used a name like Adam, we could think it was Adam, the first man on Earth, or perhaps Adam Smith down the road, or Adam du Toit in my class. But if we said Adam du Toit, we knew exactly which Adam we were talking about. Only here it is said du Toit, Adam.

In South Africa we have a butterfly named a Monarch, but there are different Monarchs all over the world. There is the African Monarch, the Asian Monarch and the American Monarch. And then in Asia we have different Monarchs as well. So to be able to tell them apart we use their scientific names. Scientific names need not be Greek to us, if we know what it means, it is easier to remember the butterfly's name.

Let's look at some names:

Emperor Swallowtail - Papilio ophidicephalus

Papilio ophidicephalus is the scientific name for the Emperor Swallowtail - it is also the biggest butterfly in South Africa and occurs after good rainy season in some parts of the Kruger National Park. Papilio was the first name given to all the butterflies. Since then we have many more names and Papilio is now used for the Swallowtails - because these large butterflies have 'swallow-tails'.

The name ophidicephalus is three different words put together to form one. In Greek ophi means snake, di means two and cephalus means head. So it translates to a 'two-headed snake'. If we look at the Emperor's swallowtails we can see that each tail looks like a snake.

To summarise that we can say the following:

  • Kingdom Animalia (animals)
  • Phylum Arthropoda (arthropods - jointed legs)
  • Class Insecta (insects)
  • Order Lepidoptera (scaled wings)
  • Genus Papilio
  • Species ophidicephalus

Once we get the hang of it, it's quite easy and we could actually even get addicted wanting to learn more and more! Olé! That's the spirit! If we look at these butterflies we can see that the authors who named the butterflies saw something familiar and then named it - only they did it Latin or Greek. Often it is easy to see why the butterfly got its English name.

Here are a few examples:

  • Guineafowl - Hamanumida daedalus
  • Mother-of-Pearl - Salamis parhassus
  • "Water bills were substantially reduced by installing drip irrigation"

By Herbert Otto

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