How to break into the science secret society

The dead language and science

Carl_von_Linné (1)
Carl Linnaeus also known as Carolus Linnæus and Carolus a Linné

Why do scientists use different names for animals in Latin, a language that is supposedly dead? Well a small part of me thinks it’s because they like things to be confusing and elitist. However, there is actually a good reason for this complicated system. It all started with a Swedish scientist known then as Carl Linnaeus. He later changed his name to, Carolus Linnæus, the latinised version of his birthname. He then received an enoblement thus, his name was changed to Carolus a Linné. The purpose of telling you this is so you can gauge what type of man the father of modern taxonomy was. He really liked his Latin… Unfortunately for a first year uni student trying to remember all these new terms, he also really liked his Greek (unsurprisingly, both languages I am not fluent in). He loved to weave folk tales and mythology into his nomenclature system. This is so much the case that he has been referred to as a poet that became a naturalist.

First thing is first, scientists love to order things. They really really love it. The world is chaos and it is their job to figure it out. To help them do this they divide the world into categories. In the biological sciences we use a system called taxonomy to separate everything into groups. Taxonomy comes from the Greek ‘τάξις’ (taxis) + ‘νομία’ (nomia) which quite literally means arrangement method.

The Swiss or the Swede?

Gaspard (Casper) Bauhin, a Swiss botanist and author of ‘Phytopinax’ (1596)

Linnæus is credited as the father of modern taxonomy but in his principle work, ‘Philosophia Botannica’ (1751) he credited the work of Gaspard (Casper) Bauhin, a Swiss botanist and author of ‘Phytopinax(1596). Bauhin’s system was published over 150years earlier than Linnaeus’ but bears a very similar resemblance to it. While the origin of taxonomy does not change how we use it today, it is important that we give credit to whom it is due. It is difficult to determine how much of Linnaeus’ system can be credited to the work of Bauhin but there is little doubt that Linnaeus did describe and classify a simply mind-boggling number of species. His work, still to this day, is an invaluable addition to science. Just like all aspects of science, the work of one scientist is built upon the work of a multitude of others.


Swearing Grandmothers and this taxonomy thing

Opossum mother and her babies

Before Linnaeus and Bauhin, science was not very good at this categorisation thing but they did try so I suppose that counts in a small way. Categories in this era included, “plants that grow as bushes” and “large trees that bloom with fruit”. This is classifying organisms by their appearance which is not a viable method. For example, opossums and possums look very similar but in fact are a result of convergent evolution (animals on opposite sides of the planet both decide to evolve the same way). Or, whales look a bit like sharks so they must be related right? 

Brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

This is why the Linnaeus system is such a better alternative. This system has changed since Linnaeus’ day, mostly to make allowances for the discovery for organisms such as viruses and bacteria. To make less things less confusing we’ll just look at the modernised version.




Taxonomic ranks


Example taxonomic ranking
Rank Examples Notes Dog E. coli
Life Living or not living Is it alive? The existence of viruses created the need for this category .yes yes
  • Archae -prokaryotic cells
  • Eukarya -membrane bound organelles
  • Bacteria -also prokaryotic cells but their membranes are different to Archae
Eukarya Bacteria
Kingdom In the domain Eukarya there are four kingdoms:

  • Animalia- animals
  • Plantae- plants
  • Fungi
  • Protista -protists
There are different systems to differentiate the kingdoms but this is the one I was taught at university. Animalia Eubacteria
Phylum In the animal kingdom there are many different phyla (plural of phylum). Examples are:

  • Chordata- spinal cord present
  • Mollusca -molluscs
  • Platyhelminthes -flat worms
Chordata Proteobacteria
Class Classes of Chordata:

  • Mammalia – mammals
  • Amphibia -amphibians
  • Aves -birds
  • Hyperoartia -Lamprey
Often but not always end in, ‘-ia’ Mammalia Gammaproteobacteria
Order Orders of Mammalia:

  • Carnivora -carnivores
  • Perissodactyla -horses, rhinoceros, tapirs
  • Diprodontia – kangaroos, koalas, possums
Carnivora Enterobacteriales
Family Families of Mammalia:

  • Canidae -dogs and foxes
  • Felidae -cats
  • Ursidae – bears, racoons and pandas
End in, ‘-ae’ Canidae Enterobacteriaceae
Genus Genuses of Canidae:

  • Canis– dogs
  • Vulpes – true foxes
  • Lycalopex – South American foxes
Always capitalise the genus. If using a computer, italisise it. If writing by hand underline it. Canis Escherichia
Species Species of Canis:

  • anthus – African golden wolf
  • aplinus– Dhole
  • aureus – Golden jackal
  • latrans -coyotes
  • lupus – wolves and dogs
  • simensis – Ethiopian wolf
Leave the species in lower case. If using a computer, italisise it. If writing by hand underline it. lupus coli
Scientific Name
  • Canis anthus
  • Canis aplinus
  • Canis aureus
  • Canis latrans
  • Canis lupus
  • Canis simensis
Canis lupus Escherichia coli (E.coli)



Phylogenetic tree of carnivores

Sometimes things get more complicated and you get sub-families and sub-species but we’re just ignore everything that is difficult for the time being. Hopefully that made everything a little clearer at least…. Taxonomy is just a way to group things. If you prefer numbers then you could consider life as the first rank, domain the second, kingdom the third and so on.

The three domains (Bacteria, Archaea and Eukaryota) separated into their sub-domains and kingdom



Now how to remember that order… One of my lecturers once said that the ruder anything is the more likely you are to remember it (writing it yourself will help). Many uni students have thus spent tutorials with a grandmotherly looking woman standing at 5ft high, trying to fit swear words into mnemonic devices. Oh and her Great Danes would be wandering around the room because uni isn’t a strange enough place already.

Science Names in a Dead Language

Organisms usually have at least two names. The first is the one that you would hear from day to day and is known as the common name. For example: cat, dog, green tree frog and moose. The second name is referred to as either the latin name or the scientific name. For example: Canis lupus, Homo sapiens and Aquila audax. For the purposes of this article we will call it the scientific name because it is not always latinised (put into Latin). The scientific name comes in two parts. The first part is the genus and the second is the species. This is why this system is referred to as binomial nomenclature. Binomial equals two terms. Nomenclature means a way to choose/differentiate something. So bionomial nomeclature is a two name system to categorise organisms.


When the organism is being discussed in text the common name is usually given first followed by the scientific name in brackets. For example: The Grey wolf (Canis lupus) is a carnivore. Scientific names are always used in a journal (scientific publications not someone’s diary). They are however, quite long and cumbersome. This has led to the practise of dropping the genus name and replacing it with the first letter of the genus name. For example: Escherichia coli is referred to as E. coli. In writing you must always write the scientific name out fully once at the beginning. This is to make sure people know exactly which genus you are talking about that happens to start with an ‘E’. If you do drop the genus and leave the first letter leave the first letter uninitialised. So it’s… E. coli not E. coli.

Escherichia coli

Why science why?

Common names unfortunately just aren’t up to snuff. There are too many common names for the one animal and many of these common names overlap with other organisms. For example, a green tree frog could refer to multiple different species. Whereas Litoria caerulea can only be one organism. A scientific name identifies the genus and species of an animal which reduces chances of confusion. It also highlights how animals are related to one another.

Everyone must know I am important….

A further addition to a scientific name is author citation. This is the recognition of the person who originally classified the organism. This means that there is an ‘L.’ out the front of many European species. For example, L. hawksbill turtle (Eremochelys imbricata) This was Linnaeus’ way of getting everyone to pay him the tribute he felt he was due (not a humble man).

Fleay’s barred frog (Mixophyes fleayi) (Corben & Ingram, 1987)

Author citation continues to this day. Placing the authors initials infront of the organism’s name is usally reserved for the classifying greats such as Linnaeus. A common method now employed is to put the author and date of classification behind the scientific name in brackets. For example, Fleay’s barred frog (Mixophyes fleayi) (Corben & Ingram, 1987). Who knew naming something could get so complicated….


Why an orange might make you immortal

Taxanomic terms are based on words or stories in Greek and Latin. This occurs in many sciences including medicine. It is traditional because it is a way to name something and others may hope to understand the significance of its name and remember it easier. However, my cynical side is fairly sure that Linnaeus did this to impress upon his peers just how well read he was…

Cynisism aside, intertwining taxonomy with mythology really does help you remember names. It reminds me a little of the songlines of the Aborigines. Knowledge of the song lines allowed the Aborigines to navigate their way across the Australian landscape where others would simply perish.

One of my favourite examples of Linnaeus utilising Greek mythology is how the hesperidia were named. The hesperidia (singular: hesperidium) are a group of modified berries with a thickened skin of a leathery texture with segmented fruit. Oranges, lemons, kumquats and citrons are all defined as Hesperidia (singular: Hesperidium). The name-sake of the Hesperium are the Hesperides. To explain this significance I am going to have to tell you a shortened version of a Greek myth….


Hesperidium anatomy

Upon Hera’s acceptance of Zeus’ proposal, Gaia, the anthropomorphic personification of the Earth, gave to Hera a tree which fruited golden apples. These golden apples granted the consumer immortal life. Hera planted the tree in her West orchard and charged the Hesperides with the tree’s protection. The Hesperides were the nymphs of the golden sunset refereed to as the, ‘Daughters of Evening’ or ‘Daughters of the West’. They were named after the evening star, Hesperus (planet Venus) that dwelt in the western sky. Hera discovered that the Hesperides had eaten the golden fruit. Deciding she could no longer trust the Hesperides she placed in the garden Ladon, a sleepless dragon with one hundred heads. Some versions of the myth say that Eris, goddess of discord, managed to pluck one of these fruits and with it she started the Trojan war (the Judgement of Paris). Hercules, as one of his twelve tasks, stole a golden apple and in the process slew Ladon the dragon. Perseus also stole a Golden apple but it was later returned to the garden by Athena. The story of the Hesperides bears a similar resemblance to the Garden of Eden and how humans lost their innocence by consuming an apple at the insistence of a serpent. The similarities increase when it is revealed that Ladon is depicted as a serpent-like creature in Ancient Greek sculpture.

Ladon guarding Hera’s Golden Apple tree as the Hesperides pine for the fruit

So that is a shortened version of why a modified group of berries containing oranges and lemons is known as Hesperidium. By knowing these origin stories it is much easier to understand why Linnæus named and grouped organisms as he did. After learning this story I always get a slight kick out of eating an orange. I am yet to be granted immortality but I’ll just keep trying….

The Blue Frog

A sample of Darwin’s bird collection that he based his theory of evolution on

In the early days of the European colonisation of Australia specimens were sent back to London to be examined by the Royal Society. Famously, a dead specimen of the duck-billed platypus was sent to London for classification and they denounced it as a fake and poor one as that. The Royal Society controlled the scientific community for many years and their word was law and could destroy a scientisit’s reputation. Darwin staved off publication of, ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selectionuntil he could delay no longer due to another scientist’s eminent publication of an evolution theory.

If a new species was discovered it was usually shot and packaged off to London. In the case of the green tree frog (Litoria caerulea) it was probably popped into a bottle of alcohol both to kill it and preserve it on its trip to London. In those days it was a very long journey by boat from Australia to London. On the journey the preaservative changed the colour of the green tree frog changed from green and white to a blue and yellow. The species was subsequently labelled as ‘caerulea’. Caerulea means blue in Latin… Oops…

The very blue frog – Litoria caerulea


Taxonomy is just a way we can group things together. When we group things by their taxonomic ranking, we can see evolution at work. Scientific names are just the genus and species lumped together so we don’t confuse organisms.

How would you separate these plants from one another?



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