Studying Living Organisms

What's In A Name?

Edward Quickert
Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute

Target age or
ability group:
High school
Class time
Field trip: 4 hours
Class time: 1 hour.
Materials and equipment: List of organisms
Drawing paper
Colored pencils/markers
Summary of activity:
This activity is designed to introduce students to the binomial system of nomenclature for classifying organisms. The teacher identifies an appropriate exhibit for a field trip and prepares and distributes a selected list of organisms displayed and their common names. (If a field trip to a museum is not feasible, the teacher could adapt the activity for a "field trip" to the library.)

Before the field trip::students are to draw fantasy figures using the organism's common names as a guide. For example, a palm tree could be drawn in the shape of a hand, a bat tree with bat leaves. Students are only limited by their imaginations. The wilder the better.

At the field location: Students must locate and draw accurate depictions of their fantasy organisms and attempt to discover the characteristic responsible for the common name.

Following the field trip: several classroom activities and extensions are described on the following page.


The National Science Teachers Association recognizes that the teaching of biological evolution should include the concepts: binomial systems, nomenclature, genus and species at the ninth grade level. Generalization II of the NSTA recommendations states:

Biological classifications indicate how organisms are related. Organisms are classified into a hierarchy of groups and subgroups based on their similarities and reflecting these 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 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 languages that were descriptive 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 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 two words. The first word is the genus, and is always capitalized. The genus is a large group of organisms that reflect an evolutionary relationship based on similarities. The second word is the species name that is descriptive of the organism, and it is always shown in lower case. The genus and species names are standardized throughout the world.

Classroom Activities Following Field Trip:

1. An exhibition of drawings is organized in the room, comparing fantasy with reality.

2. Students research the pseudo Latin and Greek roots of the genus and species of their organisms and give a report to the class.


1. An activity could be developed surrounding a study of ecosystems, and library work could be substituted for a field trip.

2. Given a list of Latin and Greek root meanings, the students could construct species names for groups of organisms that are the current object of study. The "new" species names would represent aspects of the structure and function of the organism. The students would then defend their "new" species names in front of a class appointed scientific board.

Sample List

Scientific Name

Common Name

Exhibit Location

Acalypha wilkesiana

Beefsteak plant

Pacific islands

Adiatum caudatum

Walking fern

Rain forest

Anthurium scherzerlanum

Pigtail anthurium

Rain forest

Aristolochia grandiflora

Dutchman's pipe

Rain forest

Aslpenium 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

On to What Can You Learn About
Dinosaurs by Watching an Ostrich?

Back to Index

Woodrow Wilson Index

Activities Exchange Index

Custom Search on the AE Site