watersheds.org the world in your watershed search
homewhat's newabout ussite mapcontact us

Nature Scientific Names

Scientific Names

What are all those big funny sounding names? 

The two names that are right next to the plant or animal's common name are called "scientific names". 


White Oak Quercus alba (KOO-air-cuss AL-buh) 

1.White Oak is the common name. 
2.Quercus alba is the scientific name. 
3. (KW-air-cuss AL-buh): is a hint on how to say it. 

These names are used for plants and animals to keep people from getting them all mixed up. Everybody in the entire world uses the same names for the same plants and animals. 

The reason these names sound funny is because they are a written language called Latin that nobody speaks anymore.

Because these names are in a language that nobody speaks, the words are always slanted like this, or underlined. 

Why do you have to name everything? 

That may sound like a lot of work, but it is very important. 

Say for instance, you had a very tall bush growing in your back yard with purple and pink flowers on it. You want to tell people about your cool plant, but you don't know its name. So you make up a name to give it. Because of its flowers, you decide to call it bubble-gum bush. You go inside to tell your Mom about this "bubble-gum bush", and she likes it too. She tells her friends about it, and they all start calling that plant "bubble-gum bushes" too, wherever they see it. 

When your cousin from down south comes for a visit. You are walking outside when he notices that same very tall bush with purple and pink flowers on it. "Oh," he says, "We have that plant in my yard too. It's a banana-berry bush.". 

Oh no! Who is right and who is wrong? 

That is why every plant and every animal has been given two separate names that everyone the in the whole world uses. 

Why do they have two names? 

Using two names is called a "binomial (Bye-NOME-EE-ul) system". Your name is a binomial system too. Your last name is used by people who are related to you. If your last name is Jones, I could say "Hey, come here, Jones!" and you would know to come over. But if one of your brothers or sisters were there, how you know I was calling you and not them? That is why you are called by a different first name than your brothers and sisters. What if everyone in your family was named Sara? Yikes! 

To keep plants and animals from getting confused we give them two names also. The first name in a scientific name is kind of like your last name. 


We call a plant Acer rubrum 
Just like we would call you Jones, Sara 

But if two plants have the same first name, then they are VERY related. Every maple tree in the whole world has the same first name, Acer. But red maples are different from sugar maples, so they have to have different names to tell them apart. 

The second name of a red maple is rubrum (ROO-brum) which means red in Latin. The second name of a sugar maple is saccharum (SACK-a-rum) which means sweet or sugary in Latin. Plants with the same second name are not related. Just like you are not related to someone in your class just because they have the same first name. 

So, that is how you can tell Acer rubrum from Acer saccharum, just like we can tell Sara Jones from her brother, Michael Jones. 

Written for the Atlas by Jessica Crandall