If you look around you will see a large variety of living organisms, be it potted plants, insects, birds, your pets or other animals and plants. There are also several organisms that you cannot see with your naked eye but they are all around you.
If you were to increase the area that you make observations in, the range and variety of organisms that you see would increase. Obviously, if you were to visit a dense forest, you would probably see a much greater number and kinds of living organisms in it.
Each different kind of plant, animal or organism that you see, represents a species. The number of species that are known and described range between 1.7-1.8 million. This refers to biodiversity or the number and types of organisms present on earth.
We should remember here that as we explore new areas, and even old ones, new organisms are continuously being identified. As stated earlier, there are millions of plants and animals in the world; we know the plants and animals in our own area by their local names.
These local names would vary from place to place, even within a country. Probably you would recognise the confusion that would be created if we did not find ways and means to talk to each other, to refer to organisms we are talking about.
Hence, there is a need to standardise the naming of living organisms such that a particular organism is known by the same name all over the world. This process is called nomenclature.
Obviously, nomenclature or naming is only possible when the organism is described correctly and we know to what organism the name is attached to. This is identification. In order to facilitate the study, number of scientists have established procedures to assign a scientific name to each known organism. This is acceptable to biologists all over the world.
For plants, scientific names are based on agreed principles and criteria, which are provided in International Code for Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). You may ask, how are animals named? Animal taxonomists have evolved International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). The scientific names ensure that each organism has only one name.
Description of any organism should enable the people (in any part of the world) to arrive at the same name. They also ensure that such a name has not been used for any other known organism. Biologists follow universally accepted principles to provide scientific names to known organisms.
Each name has two components – the Generic name and the specific epithet. This system of providing a name with two components is called Binomial nomenclature. This naming system given by Carolus Linnaeus is being practised by biologists all over the world. This naming system using a two word format was found convenient.
Let us take the example of mango to understand the way of providing scientific names better. The scientific name of mango is written as Mangifera indica. Let us see how it is a binomial name. In this name Mangifera represents the genus while indica, is a particular species, or a specific epithet.
Other universal rules of nomenclature are as follows:
1. Biological names are generally in Latin and written in italics. They are Latinised or derived from Latin irrespective of their origin.
2. The first word in a biological name represents the genus while the second component denotes the specific epithet.
3. Both the words in a biological name, when handwritten, are separately underlined, or printed in italics to indicate their Latin origin.
4. The first word denoting the genus starts with a capital letter while the specific epithet starts with a small letter.
It can be illustrated with the example of Mangifera indica. Name of the author appears after the specific epithet, i.e., at the end of the biological name and is written in an abbreviated form, e.g., Mangifera indica Linn.
It indicates that this species was first described by Linnaeus. Since it is nearly impossible to study all the living organisms, it is necessary to devise some means to make this possible.
This process is classification. Classification is the process by which anything is grouped into convenient categories based on some easily observable characters.
For example, we easily recognise groups such as plants or animals or dogs, cats or insects. The moment we use any of these terms, we associate certain characters with the organism in that group.
What image do you see when you think of a dog ? Obviously, each one of us will see ‘dogs’ and not ‘cats’. Now, if we were to think of ‘Alsatians’ we know what we are talking about.
Similarly, suppose we were to say ‘mammals’, you would, of course, think of animals with external ears and body hair. Likewise, in plants, if we try to talk of ‘Wheat’, the picture in each of our minds will be of wheat plants, not of rice or any other plant.
Hence, all these - ‘Dogs’, ‘Cats’, ‘Mammals’, ‘Wheat’, ‘Rice’, ‘Plants’, ‘Animals’, etc., are convenient categories we use to study organisms. The scientific term for these categories is taxa.
Here you must recognise that taxa can indicate categories at very different levels. ‘Plants’ – also form a taxa. ‘Wheat’ is also a taxa. Similarly, ‘animals’, ‘mammals’, ‘dogs’ are all taxa – but you know that a dog is a mammal and mammals are animals. Therefore, ‘animals’, ‘mammals’ and ‘dogs’ represent taxa at different levels.
Hence, based on characteristics, all living organisms can be classified into different taxa. This process of classification is taxonomy. External and internal structure, along with the structure of cell, development process and ecological information of organisms are essential and form the basis of modern taxonomic studies.
Hence, characterisation, identification, classification and nomenclature are the processes that are basic to taxonomy. Taxonomy is not something new. Human beings have always been interested in knowing more and more about the various kinds of organisms, particularly with reference to their own use.
In early days, human beings needed to find sources for their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Hence, the earliest classifications were based on the ‘uses’ of various organisms. Human beings were, since long, not only interested in knowing more about different kinds of organisms and their diversities, but also the relationships among them.
This branch of study was referred to as systematics. The word systematics is derived from the Latin word ‘systema’ which means systematic arrangement of organisms. Linnaeus used Systema Naturae as the title of his publication.
The scope of systematics was later enlarged to include identification, nomenclature and classification. Systematics takes into account evolutionary relationships between organisms.