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What's in a Name?
by Edward Quickert

Activity : 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.
Extension :
  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 . . . Desert

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 . . . Desert

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 . . . Himalayas`

Tacca chantrieri . . . Bat flower . . . Rain forest

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