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Ecology

Intro to Taxonomy: how living beings are sorted and classified

Taxonomy is the science of organizing and classifying living beings into groups. It is important in the fields of wildlife biology, botany, mycology, zoology, microbiology, ecology and more! Introducing your students to taxonomy is a great way to start exploring the biodiversity of life on earth!

Taxonomy is the science of organizing and classifying living beings into groups. It is important in the fields of wildlife biology, botany, mycology, zoology, microbiology, ecology and more! Introducing your students to taxonomy is a great way to start exploring the biodiversity of life on earth!

What is Taxonomy?

As previously mentioned, taxonomy is the science of organizing and classifying living beings into groups, called taxa (singular: “taxon”). This was historically done based on shared traits. Today, genetic tests help scientists determine how organisms are related to one another and evolved from common ancestors.

Some taxa are broad and include many diverse organisms, such as kingdoms (e.g., kingdom Animalia contains all animals; kingdom Plantae contains all plants). Broad taxa are divided up into smaller and smaller groups using 8 “ranks” of taxa.

Taxonomic ranks:

  1. domain
  2. kingdom
  3. phylum
  4. class
  5. order
  6. family
  7. genus
  8. species

These ranks form the taxonomic classification system. This system provides an organized way to identify living beings and see how closely they are related to one another.

Take for example: a squirrel and a snake. Both are animals, belonging to the domain Eukarya, the kingdom Animalia, and the phylum Chordata. But the similarities stop there. Squirrels are in the class Mammalia (mammals), while snakes belong to the class Reptilia (reptiles) . A squirrel is much more similar to a groundhog. Both belong to the same order, Rodentia (rodents), and the same family, Sciuridae.

Example:

Let’s try an example – we will look at the different taxonomic ranks for one species: a western green drake mayfly (D. Grandis). We will start with the least specific taxonomic rank, domain, and work down to the most specific rank, species.

Domain: Eukarya

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Ephemeroptera

Family: Ephemerellidae

Genus: Drunella

Species: D. grandis

Activity: Taxonomic Ranks!

Try it out! Work through an example with a different species of your choosing. Pick a local wildlife species, favorite garden flower, type of pet, or something else of interest. Find the domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species and write them down. Do you recognize any of the taxon names? Which ones? Do you know of any other organisms that might belong in some of the same taxa?

close up of woman writing in a journal outdoors

Scientific and Common Names

An organism’s scientific name is its genus and species. For example, an organism of the genus Danaus and the species plexippus has the scientific name “Danaus plexippus”. But usually, this organism is just called a “monarch butterfly”. This is its common name.

Confusingly, common names of organisms often misguide us. For example, crayfish are not fish at all. Another example is water scorpions, which are insects, unlike actual scorpions, which are arachnids. Also confusingly, some insects that are not true bugs have “bug” in their common names. For example, ladybugs are insects (class Insecta) and, more specifically, a type of beetle (order Coleoptera). They are actually not bugs. True bugs are insects belonging to the order Hemiptera. For this reason, some people feel that “lady beetle” is a better name for this insect.

Taxonomy Lesson Plan

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my It’s a Bug…. Right? lesson plan for kids! It’s a full set of activities and classroom materials you can use to teach kiddos about arthropods, insects, and bugs and introduce them to taxonomy!

Explore curriculum from Wild Earth Lab:

If you enjoyed this post, I know you will love using my environmental science materials in your classroom!


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