Names can be thought of as "handles" our minds can use to get a grasp on nature's mind boggling diversity, and classification enables us to see for ourselves the general course that evolution takes in nature. Here is an example of how having a good background in names and classification gave me a buzz the other day:
The other day a friend brought me the curious-looking critter shown at the left. She had found it crossing the sidewalk next to her house here in southern Mississippi. "What is it?" she asked. You can see that the creature bears no legs so it not an arthropod such as a centipede or millipede, and it is not segmented, so it is not an annelid like an earthworm. Its brownish flesh looks soft and rubbery like that of a mollusk such as a snail, but it is flatish and doesn't have antennae.
Well, about then during my thinking process the worm raised its head and spread it like a little cobra, the way you see at the right. Then I knew what it was. It was a planarian, something I'd studied in Zoology 101 many years ago.
The important thing here is that even before it had revealed its identity, I had analytically narrowed down what the creature could be just by knowing how the animal world is divided into major "phyla" such as the arthropods, the annelids, and the mollusks. "No legs," so not an arthropod. "Not segmented," so not an annelid... Planarians belong to the Flatworm Phylum
Once I realized what we had I used the Google search engine to look up its scientific name, Bipalium kewense, and discovered all kinds of interesting stuff about it, such as how it uses the single hole in its body as both a mouth and an anus (!), and how, when it gets long enough, its rear end holds onto the ground, a narrowing appears somewhere in its lower half, and the front end simply pulls away from the back, leaving the back part parked. Then the back part grows a new head and you have a new organism!
OK. Here's a second example of how having a name can be interesting:
Let's say you hear on TV that there's a bird species in which several females lay all their eggs together in a communal nest. That's very unusual, but even more remarkable is that during the nesting season, instead of mating with and staying with one male partner, the females in the nesting group take turns mating with any of several males attached to their group.
This behavior is sure to raise a few eyebrows, and also raise the question of why Mother Nature would tolerate such "low-class behavior." However the news strikes us, maybe we'll decide we want more information, if only to have someone's opinion as to why a bird species would evolve such a kinky social system.
The problem is that if you don't know the name of the species you've heard about doing this, you're just stuck. On the other hand, if you do know the name, finding more information is easy. Fortunately, the TV program said that the name of the bird behaving in this fashion was the Acorn Woodpecker, so now all we have to do is to look up the name.
If we look up "Woodpecker, Acorn" in a field guide, we'll find that Acorn Woodpeckers occur in the southwestern United States, south through Mexico, all the way through Central America, to Colombia in South America. They live in oak and oak-pine forests, and are fairly common over their range. The species is mostly black, but with a red crown, a bold, white face-mask, and a white breast. Acorn Woodpeckers store acorns in holes drilled in tree bark and sometimes even in wooden house-walls. They fly around calling aka- aka-aka.
Usually field guides don't go into details of a bird's sex life, so for such obscure information you need to dig further. However, with the Internet that's no big deal. Just go to a good search engine such as Google at http://www.google.com, type "Acorn Woodpecker" into the key-word box, click on the search icon, and be amazed at how much information there is out there. Google says it has about 3,580 pages to look at. I click on the first one and it sends me to the Acorn Woodpecker page at the US Government's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where there's a photograph, plenty of information about this bird's life history, distribution, and other information. Just for the fun of it now I click on Google's second of 3,580 pages and this time I'm sent to the University of Michigan's "Species Account" page for the Acorn Woodpecker where there's even more information than at the first one! And it tells all about this bird's amazing behavior. Bingo!
So, without a name, there was just some possibly untrustworthy information you couldn't do anything with. But with a name, suddenly you found yourself introduced to a very interesting bird, a bird that now you can visualize flying around flashing its bold black and white patterns and calling aka-aka-aka. If you ever happen to be in a discussion about anything from human morality to strange natural phenomena, now you can say, "Oh, and have you heard about Acorn Woodpeckers?" If you did you homework, you'll be able to explain how it can be to the Acorn-Woodpecker-species' advantage for the birds to mate in such unconventional manner.
By the way, the above story provides a wonderful example of the three-step process we refer to so often that is our field-guide section. Since this process is so important to us, here it is again:
THE BACKYARD NATURALIST'S
APPROACH TO LEARNING ABOUT NATURE
STEP 1: Identify something (get its name)
STEP 2: Find out what's interesting about it by looking up the name
STEP 3: Over the years, keep gathering information, mainly in various books, journals, and web sites, and keep this information organized in a Nature Notebook (which can be kept on your computer)
Names are also important for those of us who like to list the plants and animals we're savvy enough to observe -- list all the butterflies we see while we're naturalizing, for instance. For us, names are like hunters' trophies. Name-listing is described in much more detail in our TOOLS section.
This is all so important that I think we could do with yet another example..
Let's say that one day you're able to visit, say, South Africa, and you've become very interested in birds. You pack your binoculars and a notebook, fly to Johannesburg and buy a field guide to South African birds, take a bus into the hinterland, and bright and early one morning begin listing every bird you can identify.
As you begin listing, you may surprise yourself by already recognizing a few species, for South Africa's towns are full of House Sparrows and European Starlings, just like ours, plus, out in the country there are other species North Americans know, such as Barn Owls, Pintail ducks and Cattle Egrets. The vast majority of South Africa's birds, however, will be new to you.
Some of these new bird species will strike you as being amazingly familiar, even though you're sure you've never seen them before. You'll see, for example, birds that you know beyond all doubt belong to the woodpecker family (chisel-like beaks, stiff tail feathers, feet with two toes forward and two facing behind), but they will belong to entirely different genera.
Maybe you'll see South Africa's Olive Thrush or Groundscraper Thrush, which will remind you in many ways of our American Robin. In fact, not only do these species belong in the same family as American Robins, they are members of the same genus. They are just different species.
And then there will be species that simply throw you for a loop. You'll surely see bee-eaters, which are rainbow colored as if painted by children using all the brighter crayons. Your field guide will tell you that bee-eaters are in the same order as kingfishers, though in a family not occurring in North America. Kingfishers? You will look at those bee-eaters for a while, see that their flight is a little stiff and direct like the kingfishers', their calls are loud and simple like kingfishers', and kingfishers can have some pretty colors, too, and their beaks certainly look kingfisher-like...
Finally, if you visit the right spots in South Africa, you'll see Ostriches and Jackass Penguins, representing two orders not represented by even a single species in North America. Adding whole new orders to one's Life List is a very big event in any birder's life.
A big event, that is, if you know what a bird order is. It's the same with the concepts of family, genus, and species. If you don't understand about orders, families, genera and species, you'll know that you're seeing new birds, and that some are somehow familiar while others are "exotic" to you, but you won't know how exotic they are, or even why.
Of course, these reasons for dealing with names and classification are as valid in our own backyards as in any foreign country. If you've gravitated to butterflies, for instance, and your Life List now includes sightings in all the major families -- the swallowtails, the milkweed butterflies, the Brush-footed butterflies, etc. -- and then one fine day suddenly you spot a Yucca Giant Skipper of the giant skipper family, and you've never seen any of the giant skippers, what a blast!
But, it'll only be a blast if you know the name of what you've seen, and if you know exactly how this species fits in with everything else -- its classification.
Finally, if you are ever to speak intelligently about why biological diversity is important on our planet and in your own neighborhood, names and classification will be very important tools for you.
If you succeed in naming some things in your own neighborhood, be sure to consider posting your IDs at the wonderful iNaturalist.Org website.