Taxonomy - Page 1: Naming Living Things | 2: The Tiger

Naming living things explained:

There are more than 1,500,000 living kinds of organisms and biologists have devised a way to group and name them all to prevent confusion. These names seem confusing, but once explained they are quite easy to follow.

The first stage of classification involves separating organisms into plants and animals. The most simple difference is in the way they obtain food. Plants are usually autotrophic (self-feeding). This means they manufacture their food through photosynthesis. Animals like the tiger must make their own food and these are termed heterotrophs.

However, as with many rules, there are exceptions. Some plants, like fungi, and the majority of bacteria are heterotrophic. The only completely accurate way of discerning plant from animal is to examine the cell structure.

The scientific names are traditionally Latin or Latinised. The actual choice of name is left up to the person who makes the discovery and they may chose a name which describes the organism, or name it after the location it was found in, or after someone; for example, Panthera tigris corbetti was named after Jim Corbett, famed hunter of man-eaters and conservationist.

Just to complicate things a little further, the scientific name may be followed by the name of the person who named the organism, and the date it was named; Panthera tigris (Linn. 1758) means this organism was classified by Carl Linnaeus.

A frequent question is why aren't common names sufficient? Why all this Latin mumbo-jumbo?

The simple fact is that multiple common names tend to develop. For instance, Panthera tigris corbetti identifies the genus and subspecies clearly as it only has one scientific name. But this tiger has at least three common names:

    • Corbetts
    • Indochinese
    • Malayan

    Add to those the non-English names and before long people can become endlessly confused over whether one tiger subspecies is being referred to, or several.

    How do multiple common names develop? As an example, the best-known common name for Panthera tigris altaica is the Siberian tiger. Most people fail to realise that now its more correct common name is the Amur tiger; this was altered in line with the limited wild area the subspecies is located in.

    Whereas the common name has changed; it would be exceptional for the scientific name ever to alter. One of the few times this might happen is if the same organism has been given two different names by different biologists. In this case it is usual for the first name to be retained and the second one dropped.

    The origins of the classification system:

    The present system of classification is a development from that originally proposed by eighteenth century biologist Carl Linnaeus.


It was his idea that organisms be given two main names:

    • Genus (the generic name)
    • Species (the specific name)

    The technical term for this is binomial nomenclature. Though it sounds complicated, it simply means naming (nomenclature) with two names. Biologists just like big words.

    Rules of classification:

    Even among experts there's not always agreement on the way the division of organisms should be carried out. For this reason you will find some slight variances in classification between textbooks. However, there are some basic rules which all biologists do follow:

      • Scientific name (genus and species) are always printed in italics. When handwritten they are underlined.
      • The generic name must have a capital letter, but not the specific name; for example Felis wiedi or Panthera uncia.
      • The abbreviation sp is used when the actual specific name is not known: for example Felis sp (some species of the genus Felis).
      • The scientific name must be written in full when it is first used. It may then be abbreviated by just using an initial for the genus; for example Felis lynx becomes F. lynx.

      Organisms are normally considered to  belong to the same species if they can successfully breed and produce offspring. But this definition can't be used on all creatures because some are long dead and only known through fossilisation. Others live in inaccessible locations and we cannot observe them. So, here too, there are major disagreements between biologists over categories.


      Because so many species can be further split into subspecies a third name may be applied. This is called the trinomial. The tiger is a good example of this as prior to three extinctions there were eight different subspecies. There is some debate today that the five remaining subspecies should, in fact, only be three:

      • Bengal (coupled with the South Chinese and Corbetts tigers)
      • Amur
      • Sumatran 

Taxonomy - Page 1: Naming Living Things | 2: The Tiger

 Taxonomy | Whiskers | Hearing & Ear Spots | Eyesight | Smell | Teeth | Communication | Flehman | Genetics |
Life Span | Streaking | Claws, Paws & Pug Marks | Skin & Coat | Gait | Tail | Cleanliness & Tongue |
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Photography With Thanks To Lisa Purcell (Photo 1)
Hans Stenström (Photo 2)

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