Taxonomy, the classification of living things, is really complicated. For example, anyone who's worked in a record store and had to fit every band into one neat little category or other has an idea as to why: Many organisms defy traditional or obvious categories in the absence of genetic studies. This is why there is such a wide variety of terms for organizing living things (and theoreticians regularly come up with new ones).
Writers of fiction tend to tidy things up a bit. They regularly come up with creative ways of employing normal classification terms in ways that are incredibly inappropriate. Primarily, what seems to be at fault is a failure to recognize that the terms for taxonomic categories have specific meanings, and are not just interchangeable synonyms for "a big group of similar things". Sometimes they do know better; it's just that they couldn't resist the Beast Fable
pun of having an Animal Kingdom. You know, where the lion is the King.
For the record, any group of related organisms, regardless of the degree of relatedness, is called a taxon.
The major recognized taxonomic ranks are:
(If you're having trouble remembering, remember this simple mnemonic: "Danny Kaye
, Please Come Over For Good Strawberries" or, if you prefer, "Dear King Phillip Came Over For Good Soup". A commonly-used one is "Dumb kids playing catch on freeways get squashed". Before "Domain" was added to the top of the list, mnemonics were "Kings Play Cards Only For Gold and Silver" and "Kings Play Chess on Fine Glass Surfaces.")
Every species past and present is part of all
of these, in a nested pattern. So a given kingdom will contain
one or more phyla, which each contain one or more classes, etc. Although some phenomena (like horizontal gene transfer and hybridization) muddy this a bit, in general there is no overlap. In a way, as huge and diverse as life is, it can be easier to classify than records. (A band can create a hard-to-sort genre like "folktronica", but fish and birds can't have babies or otherwise be combined to make a new taxon — yet
.) The demarcations just aren't as obvious, in part thanks to the granularity (as if every band was accompianied by hundreds of extremely similar bands, and the music itself was the only source material for data).
Compound variations on these terms such as "subspecies" and "superfamily" are in common use. Some taxonomists also make use of the term "tribe" for a rank intermediate between subfamily and genus. This is not just limited to fiction; in a strictly factual sense birds are technically reptiles, and the whole animal, plant, fungus distinction is being rewritten
of late so more often than not, it's hard to know the correct terminology because it always is changing. It doesn't help matters that the current system was invented before evolution was understood, and that the ranks are pretty arbitrary. One "genus" might be older and more diverse than another "family." Some scientists even want to abolish taxonomic ranks
, though that's not likely to happen soon.
Another important distinction is whether a named group is monophyletic ('one tree') or not. A monophyletic group is exactly all descendants of some ancestor species. One way to think of phylogenetics and cladistics is they are the determination of which groups are monophyletic. All groups with a taxonomic rank (e.g. a genus) should be monophyleticnote
, but commonly used group names may not be - e.g. 'monkey' is not monophyletic unless you consider humans and other apes to also be monkeys. How to deal with this is debatable, and indeed debated in the examples on this very page. Some would argue that 'monkey' must include humans, others that 'monkeys' are not a legitimate group, others that 'monkey' is useful and legitimate, but you just need to be aware is it not monophyletic.
The scientific Latin name for a species consists of the genus name (capitalized), followed by the species name (in all lower case), both italicised. Tyrannosaurus rex
is genus Tyrannosaurus
, species rex
; Homo sapiens
is genus Homo
, species sapiens
. If the species is well known, or has already been mentioned earlier in the same work, the genus name will frequently be abbreviated to a single letter, e.g. T. rex
or H. sapiens
. If more hairsplitting is needed, the subspecies or variety name can be appended as a third word, e.g. Homo sapiens sapiens
Frankly, it's not surprising that writers are sometimes ignorant or confused. Though this can also turn into a case of Fan Wank
as many of these words also have different less precise meanings in regular English as in family and class are both used to refer to groups of similar things, a class of ships, the t-series family of trucks so a lot of these errors are just people using the words with their regular meanings. But there's really no excuse for the examples under "General", especially by scientists.
Of course, things are also more complicated than even this. Cladistics, dendrograms, phylogenetics… We'll just leave it at this lest Your Head Asplode
open/close all folders
- Most common is using the word "race" where "species" would be more appropriate. Science-fiction series with multiple sapient alien peoples are a big offender here.
- Fantasy settings do the same thing, but whether it's as bad in such a case is more debatable since there are often No Biochemical Barriers either. (If humans and elves can interbreed, producing fertile offspring, who's to say that they're not different races within a single species?)
- It should be pointed out that the definition of species is not absolute. In rare cases seemingly very different creatures can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. A good example is the case of a false killer whale and bottle-nosed dolphin (both dolphins but very different in shape and structure) which produced a fertile calf in captivity. Animals in the same genus such as tigers and lions are even more likely to interbreed.
- In a fantasy setting, it's sometimes stated explicitly that a given "race" was created from scratch by divine agents. In that case, it's not technically related to any other species at all in real-world terms. But since it's also likely to be very similar to them, the whole set-up just can't be understood in the same terms.
- Usage of the word "race" to mean "species" in Speculative Fiction is probably an archaism, which stayed as a sort of genre convention.
- Indeed, "race" was used to mean "species" in common and scientific speech until relatively recently. It was extremely common in the nineteenth century. It can be an easy way to create an old-timey mood in a fantasy story.
- Referring to a group of related species (a genus) as a single species.
- There are two known species of Velociraptor, three of Stegosaurus, and two of Triceratops.
- There is only one species of Orca now - there are several well-defined types which may need to be promoted to species though.
- In many cases the number of species is debated by different scientists. It is also often debated about which species go into which genus, since genus itself is even less concretely defined than 'species' (i.e. to some extent species are a biological reality while all higher classifications exist only as a rather subjective human system of classification).
- Referring to a species by the proper name of its family/order/etc. instead of the anglicized form. A human is not a Hominidae. A human is a hominid, a member of the family Hominidae. Doing this wrong is like referring to an animal as "an Animalia" or a plant as "a Plantae".
- Messing up the format of genus and species is very common. For the record, the genus (e.g., Tyrannosaurus) is capitalized, the specific name (e.g., rex) is not, and you always underline/italicize it.
- Use of family when order ("the owl family") or genus ("the weasel family") would be more accurate.
- Describing a newly discovered and radically unusual life form as "a completely new order of life": Kingdom or phylum or even domain would probably be more accurate. New orders are created all the time, sometimes on the whims of the researchers. (It's not just Tropers who have to deal with Lumper vs. Splitter arguments!)
- Using the word "phylum" interchangeably with "taxon" because it sounds all science-y and no one knows what "taxon" means. (And no, "giant wormlike alien with an insatiable hunger" is spelled with a Double X.) The reason for this odd usage may be historical: phylum was a synonym of "taxon" until Ernst Haeckel (who abolished polyphyletic groups from scientific classification) decided that a new rank was needed between kingdom and class.
- Biologists themselves sometimes disagree about "phylum", if only because those who aren't botanists tend to find botany's traditional use of "division" as a Plantae-only substitute to be unwieldy, and hard to justify under the contemporary three-Domain framework. Division is still technically correct for plants.
- Note the definition above "any group of related organisms". In phylogenetics (the creation of 'family trees' to describe how organisms are related) "taxon" means "the smallest group I'm considering in this analysis." Most often taxon=species, but we can also have (e.g.) taxon=individual or taxon=order. This allows us to discuss phylogenetic algorithms abstractly without tying ourselves to analysis at a particular level.
- Every instance where lifeforms evolved independent of Earth are referred to as ''mammals'', ''birds'', etc. Bonus points if the author just can't seem to understand that it's not a rule of the universe that lactation and fur go together (or feathers and eggs, etc.).
- It's even proven here on earth that nature sometimes bends its own rules with the echidna and platypus, both species of mammal that fall into the monotreme order, meaning that they lay eggs.
- Calling apes "monkeys". Ignoring that the order of primates includes humans.
- This guy disagrees.
- Don't do this one near The Librarian: It's his Berserk Button.
- Far too many apes are too quick to forget that humans are one of the great apes — not merely related. Blame the early 20th century biologists who made damn sure that hominids get far more special treatment than the genetic variation warrants.
- It depends on your definition of 'monkey'. Monkeys as a group are useless in taxonomy if humans (and other apes) are excluded. "Tail-less simians" are do not share a single common ancestor that apes don't.
- In French, the word singe, translated in "monkey" en anglais, mean "more or less all primates that are not humans"... Singe (and probably "monkey") means something more cultural than biological.
- Lamp Shaded in the Planet of the Apes remake. When one of the humans called the apes "talking monkeys", one of them pinned him down and reminded him that monkeys were lower on the evolutionary ladder.
- On an episode of Sale Of The Century someone got points for saying that a Baboon was an ape. They're actually Old World monkeys.
- The use of "ape" as "simian", as in Dutch or German, may be rare in English, but it is not extinct.
- All in all, one should remember that, in biology, something never stops being what it once was. Apes descend from monkeys (but not from living monkeys), and, therefore, ARE monkeys themselves. Just like humans are apes, monkeys are primates, and primates are mammals. The dichotomy between ape and monkey to the extreme seen here is mostly a case in English speaking circles.
- Calling dolphins "fish."
- Any reference to "the fish class" as if there were only one, probably refers to ray-finned fish, you'd hope. There are actually three: cartilaginous fish (sharks and rays), lobe-finned fish (very obscure, mostly coelacanths and lungfish) and ray-finned fish (everything else). Plus lampreys and hagfish, which are jawless chordates less closely related to all of the above than you are, hence probably shouldn't be considered "fish" at all.
- It's not all that long since actual taxonomists put all fish in a single class, and school biology textbooks probably still do. Being a bit behind the cutting edge of classification is a very minor sin - there are piles and mounds and mountains of more substantial errors to complain about in Hollywood Biology.
- There is a dolphin fish. There's also a dolphin mammal. For some reason, the dolphin mammal gets accused of being a fish frequently but the dolphin fish is rarely accused of being a mammal. The latter is often referred to by other names to avoid unfortunate misunderstandings; fishing magazines (and Animal Crossing) often refer to the Dolphin (fish) by its Spanish name, Dorado, while most restaurants call it mahi-mahi.
- An example can be seen in this Comic book PSA
- Under "strict cladism", dolphins are fish — along with birds and humans. Strict cladism holds that no species ever "loses" any of the categories it is descended from, so, eg, all birds are dinosaurs, because they arose from a group of theropods. Since all mammals are descended from synapsids, synapsids from amphibians, and amphibians from fish, well, there ya go.
- One also notes that this can be a translation convention, since English lacks a word that other language have meaning "marine vertabrate."
- A "lizard" and "reptile" are not interchangeable words; the latter includes snakes, crocodilians, turtles, and birds (since they are theropod dinosaurs themselves) as well as lizards.
- You're going to get very odd looks calling birds "reptiles" around any but the most hardcore phylogeneticists and paleontologists.
- Dinosaurs are not lizards, though they are both reptiles if one grants that reptile is actually a valid classification. They are more closely related to birds than to any other living reptile. (Also, pterosaurs and ancient marine reptiles (e.g., plesiosaurs) aren't dinosaurs, although that's getting a bit nit-picky and shouldn't be considered a problem in a work unless a palaeontologist character is making the error.)
- On the other hand, -saurus is the latinized form of the Greek word for lizard, and thus calling it lizard is justified on linguistic, rather than taxonomic, grounds, and that would even go for Basilosaurus, which is, by the way, a primitive whale from the Eocene epoch, in other words a mammal, and not a lizard at all.
- While many turtles are amphibious, none of them are amphibians. Conversely, despite having a similar body shape to lizards, newts and other salamanders are not lizards or reptiles at all, but amphibians. Amphibians have softer skin and are basically dependent on a moist environment, whereas lizards' dry, hard skin enables them to avoid the danger of dehydration.
- Using "evergreen" and "conifer" as synonyms. A few conifers are deciduous trees; for instance, No. 1: the larch. The larch. The LARCH. In warmer climates, many broad-leaved trees are evergreen.
- Using "rodent" to refer to any small mammal. Forgivable when applied to rabbits, which are in order Lagomorpha, closely related to Rodentia (together they form the clade Glires), and have gnawing teeth of their own...less so when applied to say, weasels (Carnivora) or bats (Chiroptera), which are actually more evolutionarily distant from rodents than humans are. It doesn't help that, in many European languages, the word for bat is a compound of the word for mouse.
- The word "bug" is commonly applied to any arthropod and in some cases to any invertebrate at all, but it's actually a specific term for a single group of insects, just like the word "beetle" or "moth". Bugs are only insects of the order Hemiptera.
- Having said that, good luck getting people to start calling them "arthropods." It just doesn't roll off the tongue the way "bug" does.
- A very common "mistake" is calling everything in media that one can ride a horse. This gets especially glaring when people use it on creatures that look nothing like horses, for example Yoshi is often called one.
- Even further anything that flies is often called a bird and any bird is referred to as a chicken.
- Referring to hybrid organisms, or products of genetic engineering, as "new" species with their own genus/species designation. Formal rules actually exist for naming hybrids, as "[Father's species name] x [Mother's species name]". (For example, a mule is properly classified as Equus asinus x Equus caballus.) Genetically-modified organisms retain their original taxonomic name, being distinguished from their unmodified relatives by "strain", not genus/species.
- Many people mistakenly believe jellyfish are related to octopi, squids, and other cephalopods. In reality, they belong to two separate phyla: jellyfish are cnidarians while cephalopods are mollusks.
- X-Men has many examples of Artistic Licence Biology, but two things are worth noting: The mutants are referred to as a new species, but they can breed with non-mutants; so no, the term mutant, or at least subspecies, is far more accurate. (Though the deciding factor would be if the offspring of mutants and non-mutants breed; else lions and tigers could be the same species.) Subspecies as a term is fairly arbitrary and can be used for a lot of things (Kermode bears, which are black bears with white fur due to one different allele, have be referred to as a bear subspecies), so it could work. Trying to apply real-world genetics to a world where there are genes that lets you alter reality or shoot lasers from your eyes is a bit of a lost cause.
- This is partially solved in more recent comics where Magneto, and several others, refer to Mutants as Homo Sapiens Superior (compared to Homo Sapiens Sapiens).
- Every human, nay, every individual of any species born is almost certainly a mutant, several times over, by the actual definition of the term. A typical human may have dozens of alleles (that is, genetic variations) not present in either of its parents. These are all mutations. So using the term "mutant" isn't all that scientifically useful, either.
- Subverted in a Star Wars comic in which Jaxxon, a rabbit character, says "I ain't no rodent!"
- The Childcraft book About Animals identifies arthropods as a "class" of animals, when it really is a phylum. It could be argued that phylum is too advanced a word for a book aimed at 6-year-olds, but that could also be argued of arthropod, and that didn't stop the publishers. (Probably they figured that anything was better than risking spiders getting classed as "insects".)
- Even more egregious as there are more arthropods in existence than every other phylum of animals combined.
- The Book of College Pranks: In relating a story about how a cow was elected Homecoming Queen because all the human entrants were disqualified, it says that the cow "was in the wrong phylum, but at least had not cheated." In fact, cows and humans are in the same phylum (Chordata), and the same class (Mammalia), and, inside mammals, they are remarkably quite close, even in distinct orders.
- In Cachalot, a marine biologist refers to a newly-discovered undersea race as "the first intelligent invertebrates we've ever encountered". Granted, this wouldn't be an issue in some scifi series ... but Cachalot is one of the Humanx Commonwealth novels, where humans and thranx have been virtually joined at the hip for centuries. Did Alan Dean Foster forget that his insect-based thranx also lack an internal skeleton?
- Perhaps they meant the first such species encountered in an aquatic environment?
- He also repeatedly refers to shrews as "rodents" in his Spellsinger series.
- In The World Of Kong: A Natural History Of Skull Island, Venatosaurus — the raptor-style therapod dinosaur from the 2005 King Kong — is described as a dromaeosaurid. But the species for which that taxonomic group is named, Dromaeosaurus, was extremely obscure, only known from one damaged skull and a few foot bones, and assigned to a different family entirely, at the time Carl Denham's group first discovered Skull Island. It wasn't until the 1960s that Ostrom's work on Deinonychus elevated Dromaeosaurus to the Trope Namer for a Real Life family of dinosaurs. If a creature as spectacular as Venatosaurus had been discovered before Deinonychus, then Ostrom would've surely compared his Deinonychus fossil to that species rather than to Dromaeosaurus, and the raptor taxon would've been named venatosaurids, not dromaeosaurids.
- Bored of the Rings has an appearance by "six different phyla of giant insects". Insects, whatever their size, are a single CLASS of phylum Arthropoda.
- Melville spends a chapter of Moby-Dick committing an extended crime against taxonomy. He starts by classifying whales as "spouting fish" and proceeds from there.
- Moby-Dick was written in first person perspective from the POV of a not especially well educated man in the early 19th century, when it's likely that someone actually would think that a whale was a fish.
- There was a court case in 1818 in New York City in which a businessman tried to argue that his whale oil was not subject to government inspection because the law specified "fish oil" needed to be checked for adulteration and whales were not fish. He brought in several scientists to testify to that effect. He lost. The law was changed shortly after, however, to exempt whale oil.
- Actually, Herman Melville had pretty much shown his work, even referring to the Systema Naturae by Carl Linnaeus, and Ishmael'snote subsequent "classification" can be read more as TakeThat from a more down-to-earth (or rather down-to-sea) point of view of working class protagonists of the novel, using word "fish" in a looser sense of "any exclusively marine vertebrate" rather than as "strictly defined taxon".
"I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug."
Live Action TV
- The female scientist near the beginning of the series Surface described the creature she'd seen as "An entirely new phylum of mammal!" This is especially mind-boggling when we later learn that the creatures are created from the DNA of liopleurodons(a prehistoric sea reptile)... which she describes as "A type of prehistoric eel"... You know, just stop trying.
- If they just wanted to incorrectly refer to something as a "prehistoric eel", they could have at least used a mosasaur, which are far more eel-like in shape than pliosaurs such as Liopleurodon, which were generally shaped more like sea turtles with crocodile heads.
- Occasionally a host of a Food Network show will try to emulate Alton Brown's use of scientific terminology, and wind up sounding like a Know-Nothing Know-It-All. The host of Food Feuds, for one, has openly referred to clams as crustaceans, apparently on the assumption that all seafood without fins is in the same taxon.
- The main character in Prey claims in the pilot to have discovered a new species after analyzing a DNA sample with a 1.2% difference from a regular human. They later proceed to name the new "species" Homo dominants, apparently unaware that you're supposed to use Latin for this.
- Actually, a 1.2% difference might actually enough difference to classify as a new species- if that group consisted of a reproductively isolated population. The "new species" from Prey freely intermingled with the rest of humanity.
- An episode of Fringe features what looks like a cucumber-sized slug that crawls out of its victim's mouth, which the cast later identifies as an enlarged single-cell cold virus (which don't have cells, even a single one).
- The narrator on Monsterquest seems to have confused "species" with individuals, inverting the usual pattern where higher-than-species clades are mixed up. The voiceover claims that "millions of species" of fishes are found off the coast of Florida, which is a couple of orders of magnitude more than the actual number of fish species on the planet (~32 thousand).
- Doctor Who has a species of reptilian humanoids, the Silurians, that are referred to sometimes as Homo reptilia. The Homo genus is mammalian. Furthermore, reptiles hadn't even evolved by the Silurian era, making that part of the name rather baffling as well.
- In the Elementary episode "Dead Clade Walking", Holmes incorrectly says a "clade" is any group of organisms that have survived a major extinction event, which is actually part of the definition of the "dead clade walking" paleontological concept. (A clade is simply any named group consisting of an ancestral species and it descendents. As it happens the question of whether taxonomy should be "cladistic" is one of the core wrenches in the field.) To be fair, he's exhausted after late hours talking to a geologist, and the extinction part is what's important to him.
- In an aversion, Shadowrun seems to get the race/species thing right. The book mentions that Metahumanity (Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Orks, and Trolls) are all different races within the same species. They can even interbreed (at least, they can this early on in the Sixth World), though they don't create Half-Human Hybrids when they do. If, for example, an elf and a human mate, the child will most likely be either an elf or a human. Or maybe a dwarf. Things are weird in the Sixth World.
- Meta example: The Wizards of the Coast forums for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 had a lot of fun early on trying to determine the exact taxonomic classification of dragons, due to a mention in the Draconimicon that despite their reptilian appearance, dragons are actually endothermic mammals.
- Subverted in Mass Effect, in which the names of the various alien species are very carefully non-capitalised, thus avoiding the common assumption that an alien planet is just another country but a bit further away.
- Also subverted in StarCraft II. Whereas the previous game (and early Expanded Universe materials) capitalized species name as is often done in science fiction (erroneously), StarCraft II promotional materials and the new books all spell "protoss" and "zerg" with non-capitals. The fandom hasn't quite caught on yet.
- Hidden object casual games regularly succumb to this trope, as when clicking on a "seahorse" isn't registered as finding a "fish".
- Averted in the Warcraft franchise, where across all media species names are almost always left uncapitalized. However, many, many fans do so anyway.
- The Nostalgia Critic admitted in his third "F*** Up" countdown that in his earlier review of Dunston Checks In where he repeatedly called the eponymous orangutan (and other films staring ape actors) monkeys, he didn't know there was a difference between apes and monkeys until he was corrected by his watchers.
- Elmer Fudd calling Bugs Bunny a rodent.
- Wile E. Coyote classifies the western rabbit as "Rabbitus Idioticus Delicious".
- Bugs himself is no better. In "Gorilla My Dreams" he claims his scientific name is Rodentus rabbitus.
- An episode of The Angry Beavers does this, as well. Rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents, though Rodentia and Lagomorpha are sister orders in the clade Glires. However, in the Elmer Fudd case at least, the mistake is perhaps forgivable. Indeed, taxon Lagomorpha was placed within Rodentia until at least early 1900's, making then-Rodentia equivalent to now-Glires, and Fudd was already depicted as a middle-aged man in 1940.
- Family Guy's Meg Griffin calling a raccoon a rodent. They're actually members of the order Carnivora, close relatives of BEARS. Rodents and carnivores are both boreoeutherian placental mammals, but that's about as far as their taxonomic relationship extends. It's like saying we humans (which are primates) are related to horses (which are perissodactyls).
- On Futurama, Fry came into possession of the last remaining can of anchovies on Earth, the species having gone extinct centuries ago. There is no such species as "anchovy", this being a catch-all term for some 140 species of small fishes.
- In another episode, Darwinius Massilae is presented as a transitional form between apes and humans, when in fact it is a transitional form between monkeys and apes. Also, a transitional form between apes and Darwinius is referred to as Homo Farnsworth, but it would be far too primitive to be Homo if it went that far back.
- Done in-universe in Bender's Game. When a character refers to an enormous spider he was riding as a "giant bug", the Professor angrily corrects him by calling it a "giant arachnid".
- "Moebius Dick" makes a running gag out of Leela calling people out on the "whales are fish" thing
- Jackie Chan Adventures had a weird one in which jackie and a crime boss refer to an octopus as a fish and respectively are corrected by Captain Black and a random mook by saying it is a multipod. What makes this a headscratcher is that the correction is more incorrect then the original statement because there is no taxon called multipod nor has one ever existed.
- Done in-universe in Ed Edd n Eddy where they make a bet by taking on the others personality quirks and behaviors, with Eddy trying to unsuccessfully imitate Edd's Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness by claiming chickens to be mammals.
- Done in-universe in one episode of Tarzan: The Animated Series where after capturing a magical white gorilla with Healing Hands, the villain goes on an Angry Rant on his mooks because they repeatedly refer to it as a monkey.
- Dinosaur Train uses "species" when "genus" would be more appropriate.