Not so long ago, there lived a Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus. He was fascinated with studying plants, and enjoyed discovering new ones and naming them. So Carl traveled around Sweden and Europe collecting and studying different types of plants. He soon realized that there were certain qualities that some of them shared which made it easier to group them. Learn more about Linnaeus and what he did with this Taxonomy Lesson and Worksheets for Kids.
Be sure to also check out our Classification System Science Lesson: Learning Taxonomy!
Who was Carl Linnaeus?
Carl was also an orderly type of person. Before long, he decided that the current way of organizing plants was wrong and just didn’t work. So he came up with his own classification system. In 1735, he published it and his descriptions of all the known (at that time) plants in the world in a book called Species Plantarum. He also began publishing Systema Naturae in which he named and classified animals. This first edition had 12 pages in it. But he kept studying and collecting and soon he had to publish a second edition… and then a third edition.
Carl had friends all over the place. Friends that traveled to other countries and other continents. They began to bring back specimens for him to study. And then other people who had read his Systema Naturae (or heard about it from their friends) began to collect and send him specimens, too… plants, animals, and minerals. By the time it was all said and done, Carl had published 13 editions between 1735 to 1770. They described more than 12,000 different types of living and nonliving things, including 4,400 animal species and 7,700 plant species.
In fact, by the end of his life, Carl had collected 40,000 specimens of plants, animals, minerals, and shells. But organizing so many things was a major challenge. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to hand write everything down in book form only to have someone send you something new that fit in somewhere at the beginning? So Carl quickly realized he needed to come up with a better way to organize each item. He invented the index card to help him. This way, he could move cards around or insert new ones or even group them in sections of similar plants (or animals or minerals).
Because of his amazing contributions, Carl Linnaeus became known as the Father of Modern Taxonomy.
Taxonomy Lesson and Worksheets for Kids
Taxonomy is a classification system that looks at shared traits to organize living things into groups. Traits are special characteristics (body parts or behaviors) that are found only in one type of thing (for example, an elephant’s trunk). Taxonomy is a constantly changing system that is often affected by new discoveries and new information.
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Carl’s system was unique because it organized plants/animals/minerals in a carefully structured way from biggest to smallest. This means that the biggest group contained a LOT of things that shared a similar trait, such as Animals or Plants or Fungi. And the smallest classification could be used to identify a specific individual, such as a bald eagle.
We still use Carl’s classification system today. It’s referred to as Linnaean taxonomy and has the following groupings called taxa (plural) or taxon (singular) from largest to smallest:
People are most familiar with the last two taxa because we use those as the scientific name for every living thing.
What is a scientific name?
Carl is also known for creating the 2-part naming method called binomial nomenclature. This is a big word that means when you give a living thing a name made up of two parts. In Carl’s case, he gave each new specimen a name that was made of the genus and species. Today, we call this the scientific name or Latin name. Why is this important? Because any given animal (or plant) may have a lot of different common names.
One really great example is the mountain lion. It is also called the puma, cougar, panther, catamount, and a long list of other names. It can be found throughout North, Central, and South America, so it has a lot of different Spanish names, too. If you were to travel to say, Brazil, and tell someone you were looking for a cougar, they’d probably have no idea what you were talking about. But if you were to tell them you were looking for Puma concolor – Ah! They can look that up and know exactly what you mean. And notice that I wrote the scientific name in italics. It’s always written this way: capitalized genus first followed by the species name. And always in italics if typed, or underlined if handwritten.
So how did Carl come up with scientific names (or names for any of the taxa, for that matter)? Sometimes, the scientific name tells something important about the specimen such as its coloration or a unique feature. For example, the scientific name for the bat-eared fox is Otocyon megalotis; “Oto Cyon” is Greek for “Ear Dog” and “Mega Lotis” means “Great Ear” (also in Greek). So obviously, not all scientific names are actual Latin words. And sometimes the species may be named after a person or place. For example, a recently discovered dinosaur was named Dracorex hogwartsia after the popular Harry Potter series. But notice that even though the words themselves are not Latin, they have been Latinized using the language’s traditional spelling rules.
“But why Latin?” you might be wondering. In Carl’s day, most educated people learned Latin as they prepared for the university… especially botanists like himself. Latin was also no longer a language spoken in any one particular country. So it made sense that Carl would choose to use this universal language (at least universally known among the botanist and zoologist community) to create names for each individual species. This way, they could be recognized by people all over the world, no matter which language they spoke. In fact, Carl Linnaeus often wrote in Latin, and his name was written down in its Latin form, Carolus Linnaeus.
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Worksheets and Activities for learning about Linnaeus and his Taxonomy classification system
There are a lot of mnemonics for learning and remembering the order of each taxon in Linnaeus’ classification system. A mnemonic is a type of learning technique that helps you remember something. So for example, if you take the first letter of each of the taxa listed above, you can create a sentence so that you will remember what order they go in.
Activity: Download our printable worksheet and have your students read a few or make up their own mnemonic for remembering the order of the taxa in our current classification system.
Have your students research more about Linnaeus. Let them use books, online articles, videos and more.
Activity: Download our research pages and have your students fill out the information page or write an essay using our writing pages describing what they learned about Linnaeus.
Teach your students about scientific names and encourage them to use scientific websites to find information.
Activity: Download our Scientific Name Worksheet then use the website AnimalDiversity.org to see if you can figure out the animals listed on the worksheet by their scientific names.
You might also be interested in our Biomes Worksheets & Learning Unit – Exploring Our Natural World.