NBS Blog

Ask A Naturalist: How do you know what to call an animal?

Enjoy the fourth edition of our recurring question-and-answer series, Ask a Naturalist, with questions from the Curiosity Lab's Ask a Naturalist - Answer Tree. This week's question is from Hunter, the Sanctuary's Red-tailed Hawk Ambassador.

Great question, Hunter! Humans worldwide have been naming animals and trying to sort them into groups since what feels like the beginning of time. Today we call that process “classification”, a method used to group animals (and all other living things) based on common characteristics. The branch of science that involves classification is called “taxonomy”.

In the past, humans spent their time inventing names for animals they saw around them without any kind of organized process. For example, a hard-shelled clam in Rhode Island might be named simply by its description, OR it might be called a “quahog”, “hard clam”, “round clam”, “chowder clam”, or even a “cherry stone” or “littleneck”, depending on its size. It’s just like how a woodchuck in one region might be called a groundhog in another; it can get pretty confusing when people use different names to talk about the same animal!

As time moved on, philosophers and keen observers of nature came up with systems to group plants and animals together based on ways they thought living things were similar. Enter Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish professor of medicine and botany, who created a new system of taxonomy in the mid-1700s. Linnaeus created a system in which every living thing has two names based on genus and species. And the name is always in Latin, no matter what language the speaker uses! So that hard-shelled clam we mentioned earlier is now known as Mercenaria mercenaria, no matter what country you’re in or what language you speak!

Suppose you see a bird in a tree and want to know what it is. Here are some questions to ask yourself to classify that creature:

How big is it?
What color is it? Does it have any distinctive markings?
What shape is it? What shape is its beak?
What sound does it make?
What habitat is it in? 
How does it fly?

Bring a pair of binoculars so you can get a closer look and a field guide to reference the being that you’re trying to identify.  If you don’t own binoculars or field guides, no problem! Norman Bird Sanctuary’s Curiosity Lab offers borrowable binoculars and other field tools from our Field Tool Closet. More extensive and detailed guides are available in the Curiosity Lab library. So be curious, stop by our Lab, and check out an interactive resource for your next visit to the Bird!

This question came from our Curiosity Lab’s Ask a Naturalist: Answer Tree.

You, too, can submit your own question for our Naturalist to ponder!