Taxonomy 101

So there I was - going through the hard drive, as is my wont on wet weekend days, - just organising or tweeting the odd pic that caught my eye. When I came across this pic I'd taken of a spider. I hadn't posted it anywhere and I hadn't made much of an effort to ID it either. So I thought I'd do both.

Imagine my surprise when not only did I find the species - but according to the excellent site I stumbled upon, (Arachne.org.au) this spider hasn't been officially recognised as being of Australia yet.

Leucauge decorata



Now, if it was up to me - I would have given this spider the common name of Glass Bottle Spider, but it's not up to me and its common name is in fact the: Decorative Silver Orb Spider.

The point is that common names mean very little. The Latin name on the other hand, isn't just there to give you a headache or make you scream at ya spell check. They exist so that no two creatures/plants etc are given the same name. As was nearly the case for Australia's very own Echidna.

Echidna is the common name and many people think that it's an Aboriginal Australian word.

It's not.

It was originally given as the scientific name for the species, (Echidna means 'spiny one') until someone found out there was a fish of the same name and so they settled on Tachyglossus ('swift tongued') instead. So the original scientific name became the globally recognised common name. Incredibly much the same thing happened with the platypus*.

Taxonomy then is a specialised field - in fact, it's a super specialised field within the much larger field of Biology etc. But common names are really just there for ease of use and convenience.

The fun thing about this is that you're free to call any animal any common name you like. Strictly speaking - you can't be wrong, (don't tell a twitcher I said so though - their hiking boots will burst into flames).

However, if like me, you're trying to get things right - both scientifically and in general parlance, it's good to have people around who can gently nudge you in the right direction. At different times on both this blog and twitter I've been fortunate that people have taken the time to share their knowledge with me. Something I am very grateful for.

Now, perhaps just as importantly - I have a growing list of resources to reference as and when the need arises. But even so, in Australia there are around 22,000 species of Moth alone - sometimes, simply getting the Family right is a victory in itself eh?.

It does help when the animal I'm trying to ID is relatively common ...

Mycalesis perseus

Junonia villida

Rhipidura leucophrys

Another issue with common names is that they are often localised. Take the Willie or Willy Wagtail above, he is also known as: The Australian Nightingale, Frogbird and/or Morningbird - that's four different common names for one bloody bird! - but only one scientific name.

Things then, get a touch sticky ...

They get downright mollassified when the animal is a member of a Family/Genus that has numerous species - each looking very much alike.

Now I'm prepared to go out on a very shaky limb here and say that this mouse is a House Mouse. BUT, there are an array of native animals that so closely resemble it, I could easily be wrong.

Mus musculus

Another excellent, (if slightly embarrassing example) is my misidentification of this beautiful bird. I originally and on more than one occasion, referred to it as a Lewin's Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii). It was only when a friend said she thought it was a Graceful Honeyeater (Meliphaga gracilis) that I began to have my doubts ...

Turns out we were both wrong, it is - (at least it better be), a Yellow Spotted Honeyeater (Meliphaga notata).

Meliphaga notata

In our defence, it's an easy error to make. Three honeyeaters of approximate coloration sharing the same geographical location - I mean come on!. In the end it was trolling the internet for bird calls that finally led us to the correct ID.

And as if all of this wasn't enough to contend with when trying to work out what's what and who's who - industrious boffins in universities and government science units the world over are forever moving the goal posts.

Species are continually being re-classified ... take my old friend the Cane Toad as a case in point; for years I have been calling them Bufo marinus, but oh no ... now they're Rhinella marina - 'course they are eh?.

Now I know how all those star-gazers felt when Pluto lost its planet status ...

Rhinella marina formerly Bufo marinus

At the end of the day I personally feel that it can all get a bit hysterically finger pointy and precious. If you think you know what something is - great, by all means throw a label at it - if it sticks, fantastic - if it doesn't, well - it's hardly the end of the world is it?.

Surely it's how we all learn.

Anyhoo, I hope you got something out of this post - as always; the pics, and any mistakes - are mine.

Take care :)



All living things are divided into seven categories using Latin terms that can be understood worldwide. They progressively get smaller and more numerous, and each contains less living things. Classification of living things is used to help identify different animals and to group them together with their relatives.

The first and largest category is the Kingdom. To date there are five kingdoms: Animalia, which is made up of animals; Plantae, which is made up of plants; Protista, which is made up of protists (single-celled creatures invisible to the human eye); Fungi, which is made up of mushrooms, mold, yeast, lichen, etc; and Monera, which is made up of the three types of bacteria ^

*'Life On Earth' Fontana 1981


Comments