Taxonomy for dummies

I have always had a love for animals since I could remember, I would learn the names of animals in English. I recently became active on iNaturalist (I joined in 2020, but started using it in late 2022), and something kept popping up on forums, which would be discussions about some certain taxa, and I wouldn’t be able to make a head or tail on it. My knowledge of taxonomy is limited to secondary (high school) level biology lessons, which most of you know isn’t much.

So my question is how do I get started in this vast ocean of classifying and naming organisms (specific animals)? Do I need to learn Latin to make it easier? How do I also learn to at least get the genus of an animal by just looking at them?

Any helpful tips would be greatly welcomed

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No, you don’t need to learn Latin, just as you don’t need to learn Swedish to know the name of the Swedish prime minister. The scientific names are just words. You can’t rely on them being descriptive of the animal, and in some cases they would be very misleading if you took them as descriptions.

My advice is not to hope to learn the whole taxonomic tree. Focus on a part that particularly interests you, maybe a group with a few hundred species, and you will probably get to recognise them at genus level in a few months. To some extent this will depend on what identification literature exists for your area. Then expand into other groups of animals at a rate you can feel comfortable with.

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What is your taxon of interest?
Another identifier here may be happy to help shadow you to get started.

For me, I found a taxon of particular interest then just observed lots of them until I knew the basics for my locale.

A year or so later I started to identify other peoples observations, which helped fill in more blanks.
When I started identifying I began high up the tree - I figured if I could just advance observations one rank further, it would still be of value. As time went on I continued to figure out the splits further and further down the tree … slowly advancing the depth of identification I was able to help with. Meanwhile, I also expanded the number of species I had observed myself, more broadly mapping out my knowledge of my local area. At some point I was able to join all the dots together … and after a year or two I had a good overview of my taxon of interest.

You definitely do not need to learn Latin.
I have considered it though of late, out of curiosity.

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iNaturalist’s own store of information on taxa can be helpful: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa

For example, for raptors, you could look at the taxonomy for the order Accipitriformes, the Hawks, Eagles, Kites, and Allies: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/71261-Accipitriformes

Click on the various levels listed under the taxonomy tab to learn who’s related to whom.

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Binomials use Greek, it’s not all Latin.

I am interested in the whole web of life. When I see a new binomial / taxon I click thru to iNat’s taxonomy tab to show myself what and where. I also use that to decide, up the levels, okay I am confident that the jelly is Cnidaria. And the mantis is MantOdea not MantIdiae (for my ID skills)

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First you have a choice, do you want to know a little about “everything” or a lot about a few things; your choice will influence your approach. Personally, I lean more towards the former, but there will always be taxa that you are more familiar with than others.

You simply won’t be able to guess the genus of every animal taxa; with practice, you may be able to get most things to family, and specific taxa to genus/species.

This is excellent advice; observe species! Every year I pick a taxa that I want to become more familiar with. Last year was wasps (this year was freshwater fish, but I’m going to need a repeat year because I did a poor job of it). I still observe other taxa, but I go specifically looking for my taxa of choice. Try to ID everything with field guides/online resources before adding it to iNat (you don’t have to ID to species, just get it as far as you can), then post to iNat and see if the community agrees.

Also, play around with your Indented Tree of Observed Taxa. This helps you get an idea of how the things you observe are related, and I find this format simpler and less distracting than the dynamic life lists.

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Check YouTube for online lections, knowing current state of taxonomy is helpful even if you professionally learnt it ten years ago.

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to quote a joke I heard some years ago:
“Taxonomy is all about organisms and how you ‘phylum’” :grin:

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Several things help:

  1. Displaying scientific names first or only scientific names forces you to remember them: Top/Right Profile Icon → Account Settings → Content & Display → Names → Scientific Name (Common Name) -or- Scientific Name
  2. Any resource for looking up roots, my favorites are: Dictionary of Botanical Epithets and List of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names
  3. Clicking on any taxon, for example Xanthium defaults to the About tab at the top. They all have another tab called Taxonomy that lets you see the tree. It’s worth exploring it, seeing what’s above and below to get a feel for relationships.
  4. Take a look at your life list, it shows you a tree of all your iNat observations in a clickable tree format: Profile → Species
  5. Focus on a specific branch of life, plants, reptiles, mushrooms, etc. and ask if anyone you regularly interact with on iNat, who does identifications on your observations, for recommendations on books about that subject. Recommended books tend to be locally more useful and have taxonomy built in.
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You don’t need to know all about taxonomy to use iNaturalist, but some things can help. The most useful categories are those you can often recognize, so you can apply them to unknowns. For flowering plants, the most useful category is the family. For insects, it’s the order. As you learn species in these groups, ask yourself what they have in common.

As @vreinkymov says, the taxonomy tab on taxon pages is helpful. Don’t try to memorize all the categories! Just notice ones that come up again and again in taxa of interest to you. Also, pay attention to groups that often show up when there are disagreements about species identifications. Some of these will be useful.

By the way, here are singular and plural of some irregular taxonomic words:
taxon, taxa
genus, genera
species, species

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Hi @Raptor_Huss3 I took a look at your profile and see you are an aspiring Zoologist/Wildlife conservationist. Given that I’d say you do really do need to learn some Latin names for the organisms you are interested in. While common names are best for communicating with the general public like me specialists are going to want to hear you use proper nomenclature.

Do you need to learn Latin? It can’t hurt but otherwise no. Many if not most Latin names make as little sense as the common names. Learn the common and latin names for the things that interest you. For everything else you can look it up. Knowing how and where to look up information is far more important than memorizing it.

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If you learn some Latin and Ancient Greek you’ll find it helpful in remembering scientific names and how to spell them. And you’ll recognize the meaning behind many of the names.

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If we’re talking animals, the genus often corresponds to what we may term “kind.” As in someone asks, “What kind of animal is that?” and someone who doesn’t know the exact species might say, “It’s a chipmunk.” Now, it is a bit more complicated than that, because the “chipmunk kind” is currently considered to comprise both Tamias, Eutamias, and Neotamias; this taxonomic flux is confusing, even exaperating, even to those of us with considerable experience. But if you know the difference between a chipmunk and a ground squirrel just by looking, you’re pretty close to knowing genus. Not all “kinds” contain multiple genera, either.

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This is so variable for insects, it’s crazy. In the subfamily Eumeninae (potter and mason wasps), Stenodynerus requires seeing the base of the second tergum.

In the subfamily Campopleginae (Ichneumonid wasps), you’ll generally have to find a museum with identified specimens if you want to determine genus or species.

By contrast, I can definitely teach someone how to identify large carpenter bees or bumblebees to genus (Xylocopa, Bombus).

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It is less daunting to learn Latin (than Greek) - since a substantial part of English comes from Latin, sometimes softened by French on the way.

The meaning in binomials would be more useful if taxonomists didn’t insist the oldest name holds, no matter how wrong it is. Plectranthus madagascariensis became Coleus madagascariensis - they changed the genus because, but it wasn’t and still isn’t - from Madagascar. It is ours!

Chrysocoma coma-aurea is a good example. Golden all the way. First chrys from Greek, then aurea from Latin.

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I would 100% agree on looking things up. While Latin can be fairly easy to learn if you speak English and even easier if you speak any Romance language, as a beginner most of your time for a good while will probably be spent on learning declensions, which is pretty much useless for taxonomy.

Looking up the etymology of the taxa you encounter and of scientific terms in biology would be for the most part enough, I feel. For instance, learning the colours for the biology context (erythrism for red, xanthism for yellow, leucism for white, all from Greek) might stick in your mind much better than your average Latin/Greek lesson.

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Please do not learn Latin just to learn taxonomy. Learning species/genus/etc… names will do.

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I did mean - learn the meaning of the Latin and Greek used in binomials.

Not the grammar, and dead language as such.

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Unfortunately with the way I’ve been taught those languages at high school/bachelor level, you’ll probably be able to work on the latest critical edition of Lucan’s poetry before you learn anything remotely useful for our purposes!

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Wow, fantastic tips, thank you for all the advice you guys are giving me.
I think the analogy that @jhbratton gave of learning 'Swedish to know the name of a Swedish prime minister was an excellent way to show that you don’t need to know Latin to learn the taxa.

I think it is all about practice, and with the tips all of you gave me, I could start my journey through the fascinating world of taxa.

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