For centuries people have been naming animals (and plants) and animal groups (and plant groups), making assumptions about which critters are like which other critters, sorting them according to what they look like and how they behave. Scientists call the study of classification of plants, animals, and other organisms taxonomy.
On this day in 1627, English naturalist John Ray was born. He ended up making contributions in classifying flowering plants, and he was the first person to define the word species in a scientific way. (Basically, he said that organisms are of the same species, even if they vary from one another, if they are related through reproduction.)
One of the things Ray believed and practiced was classifying creatures according to actual observations instead of according to pre-conceived groups created by either-or thinking. Instead of diagramming a rigid “tree of life” like this:
Ray allowed for a taxonomy like this:
On this day in 1762, French biologist Pierre Andre Latreille was born. He ended up making the first detailed classification of insects and crustaceans (which are shrimp, lobsters, crabs, and other shellfish).
Latreille may be the only person who saved his own life by discovering a new species. He was imprisoned during the French Revolution, and he was sentenced to death for refusing to pledge his allegiance to the new constitution. However, there in the prison he discovered a beetle that had not been known to science before. Because of this, two fellow naturalists were able to convince Latreille's captors to free him!
- Study this colorful animal classification chart. There is a link to a classification game on the left side of the screen, too!
- Kid Zone has a nice webpage covering some of the same content.
- How about an animal classification song?
- Scientists classify plants, too. Here is a rather strange YouTube video—starring talking plants!
Learn more about Taxonomy
- Here is a serious discussion of the topic, written for kids.
- And here is a website with lots of information and activities about taxonomy.
- We currently classify organisms in five large groups called kingdoms. Check it out.