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What's in a Name?

By Edward Quickert


Field trip
Field trip - 4 hours
Class time -45 minutes

Materials and equipment:
  • list of organisms
  • drawing paper
  • colored pencils/markers
  • sketch pads

The National Science Teachers Association recognizes that the teaching of biological evolution should include the concepts-binomial systems, nomenclature, genus and species at the 9th grade level. Generalization II of the NSTA recommendations states that "Biological classifications indicate how organisms are related. Organisms are classified into a hierarchy of groups and subgroups based on their similarities and reflecting their evolutionary relationships. Species are the fundamental unit of classification.....Observations of the variety of structural diversity of organisms lead to an understanding of the commonality of structure and function (implied but not explicitly stated in the Standards document.)"

The binomial system of naming living organisms was developed by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus in the mid 18th century. The polynomial system, that was then in use, consisted of several Latin, Greek or pseudo forms of these words that described the features of the organism. For example, common catnip was Nepteta floribus interrupte spicatus pedunculatis. The honey bee was Apis pubescens thorace subgriseo abdomen fusco pedipus posticus glabris utrinque margine ciliatis. This cumbersome system was replaced by Linnaeus' binomial system consisting of just two words. The binomial system also replaced the confusing practice of using common names. The name white pine can refer to any one of three different trees, depending on the area of the country you are in at the time. Several species of tropical trees are identified as "rubber trees". There are many "ant trees" and at least two "mosquito trees" (so called because depressions in the bark provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes).

The binomial system eliminates the confusion surrounding the naming of organisms. Each organism is given a name that consists of only two words. The first name is the genus. The genus is a large group of organisms that reflect an evolutionary relationship based on similarities. The second name is the species name that is descriptive of the organism. The genus name is always capitalized while the species name, which follows the genus name, is usually lower case. The genus and species names are standardized throughout the world.


Pre field trip

Given a list of organisms with common names that illustrate the confusion that could result if they were used for identification, students will use their imagination to draw one or more "fantasy trees" using the common name as a guide. For example, a palm tree could be drawn in the shape of a hand or the bat tree could have leaves that are bats. Students are only limited by their imaginations--the wilder the better.

At field location

The students then must locate the organism(s) that they drew a fantasy picture of and sketch the real organism for comparison. They should try to discover the characteristic that is responsible for the common name.

In class

  1. A display of the contrasting drawings could be arranged.

  2. Students could tell the class about their organism(s).

  3. Students could research the pseudo Latin or Greek roots of the genus and species names, and try to discover the characteristic that is responsible for the scientific name.


  1. An activity of this sort could be used when learning about different ecosystems. Library investigation could be substituted for the field trip.
  2. Given a list of Latin and Greek root meanings the students could construct "new" species names for groups of organisms that are the current objects of study. The "new" species names could be a better representation of structure and function of the organisms than the officially approved names. Students could defend their "new" names to a class-appointed scientific board.

Teachers note:

The following list was constructed for a field trip to a specific exhibit. Most exhibits are happy to provide you with a list of display organisms. Then you only have to do a little library work to match up common and scientific names, or the library work could be a student responsibility.

"What's in a Name?"

Acalypha wilkesiana
Beefsteak plant
Pacific islands
Adiatum caudatum
Walking fern
Rain forest
Anthruium scherzerlanum
Pigtail anthurium
Cloud forest
Aristolochia grandiflora
Dutchman's pipe
Rain forest
Asplenium nidus
Birdsnest fern
Rain forest
Atriplex nummularia
Salt bush
Brassaia actinophylla
Umbrella tree
Rain forest
Callistemon lanceolatus
Bottlebrush tree
Palm house
Carludovica palmata
Panama Hat plant
Rain forest
Clerondendron thomasonae
Bleeding heart
Rain forest
Clusia rosea
Playing card plant
Rain forest
Coffea arabica
Coffee plant
Cloud forest
Datura candida
Angel's trumpet
Cloud forest
Dryopteris lepida
Shield fern
Pacific islands
Euphorbia ingens
Candelabra tree
Ficus elastica
Rubber tree
Rain forest
Freycinetia arborea
Rat tree
Pacific islands
Heliconia humilis
Lobster claw
Rain forest
Neodypsis lasteliana
Teddy bear palm
Palm house
Rhus verniciflua
Varnish tree
Tacca chantrieri
Bat flower
Rain forest

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