How do animals get their names?

cat-tabby

This question about how and why creatures names are chosen started with my 5-year-old’s observation that not all ladybirds are female…

Scientists use a special naming system to identify and group together all living and extinct creatures. This system is called ‘taxonomy’ and it uses a set of rules to make sure that every different type of creature has a unique name.

The naming system we use was invented by a scientist and explorer called Carolus Linnaeus. His idea was to give each creature a two-part name: a species name and a genus name.

The genus name is the family that the creature belongs to; the species name is the unique type of creature in that family. Both names are written in italics and the genus name always starts with a capital letter.

To give an example, let’s think about cats. Small and medium-sized cats belong to the genus Felis (a name that comes from the latin word for cat). Within this genus, there are eight species of cats, two of which are extinct:

  • Felis bieti – the Chinese mountain cat
  • Felis catus – the domestic cat (or pet cat)
  • Felis chaus – a jungle cat that lives in Asia
  • Felis margarita – the sandcat
  • Felis nigripes – the black-footed cat or small-spotted cat that lives in Africa
  • Felis silvestris – the wildcat
  • Felis attica – an extinct cat that was a bit like a lynx
  • Felis lunesis – an extinct wildcat

So under this naming system, my pet cat Simba (pictured above) would be described as Felis catus.

And as for ladybirds (which are also known as ‘ladybugs’ or ‘ladybeetles’), there are more than 5,000 different species across the world! Each different type of ladybird will have its own two-part name.

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