Main Taxonomic Term Confusion Discussion

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09:49:36 AM Nov 21st 2017
Pulled because Examples Are Not General

     Common Examples In Media  
  • 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. Technically speaking, the term "race" has no agreed upon scientific definition at all.
    • 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, four 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 phylum ("the worm family"), class ("the insect family"), order ("the bat family"), genus ("the weasel family") or species ("the chicken 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 (this use persisted well after Haeckel's death).
    • 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.
    • It's debatable if alien lifeforms should even be referred to as "animals", "plants", or "fungus" given that it is literally impossible for them to be more closely related to animals from earth than animals from earth are related to plants or fungi from earth, barring some very (cosmically) recent panspermia.
  • 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. "Tailed simians" 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.
    • Lampshaded 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 vertebrate."
  • 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. Aside from the fact that they include birds, they are more closely related to crocodylians than to any other traditional "reptile" alive today. (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 paleontologist 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.
    • In fact, even the word "reptile" is replacable with the phylogenetic term "sauropsid", which is more precise than "reptile"; the phylogenetic definition of Sauropsida includes lizards and snakes (Lepidosauromorpha), sauropterygians (plesiosaurs and pilosaurs), archosaurs (crocodylomorphs, dinosaurs and pterosaurs) and testudines (turtles and tortoises), whilst Reptilia includes only snakes, lizards, plesiosaurs, pilosaurs, crocodiles, dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Avialae (birds) is rested in Dinosauria, and thus are sauropsids; however, by the definition of Reptilia, this cannot be. Thus, suggestions of replacing "Reptilia" with "Sauropsida", since cladistics are becoming the new standard over traditional Linnaean taxonomy.
  • 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. More importantly, amphibians spawn jelly-like eggs that are externally fertilized, whereas reptiles internally fertilize their amniotic eggs.
  • 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.
    • The term "conifer" itself is deceptive, as it means "cone-bearing", yet is generally used in a way that excludes the cone-bearing cycads.
  • 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.
    • As well, most hybrids are sterile in at least one gender, like male ligers (Panthera leo x Panthera tigris). Some hybrids, such as the pumapard (Puma concolor x Panthera pardus) are also more likely to have genetic conditions like dwarfism than either parent, as well.
  • 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.
  • In older works Science Marches On combined with Language Drift can come into play - e.g. prior to the last third of the 18th century, use of the word fish for "any exclusively aquatic animal" was quite acceptable, and bug once had no more specific definition than "monstrous creature." This could also be applied deliberately for the works set in the past.
  • Referring to hyenas as dogs. Despite having a resemblance to canines, hyenas are actually more closely related to mongooses and felines.
08:16:16 AM Aug 19th 2014
Does anyone else think the page should be rewritten with a greater emphasis on cladistics?
04:03:57 AM Feb 1st 2014
Are phyla and divisions really the same thing? IIRC, Maniraptora was designated as a division at one point, and if the two really are synonymous, that's taking MANIAC propaganda a bit too far.
05:00:30 AM Feb 1st 2014
They are the same thing as far as I know, just that "divisions" is used in plants and "phyla" elsewhere.
09:00:08 AM Sep 17th 2012
Some examples seem excessively nitpicky. For example, "class" can be a generic word meaning "group" in addition to being a scientific term, so calling a phylum a "class" in a work intended for younger readers isn't inherently inaccurate.
11:51:54 PM Oct 22nd 2010
edited by endlessnostalgia
I think there may be a justification for these:

  • The ikran in Avatar apparently have the scientific name Pterodactylus giganteus. No. This is wrong. Being members of the genus Pterodactylus would mean that they're small pterosaurs from Earth's Late Jurassic period. For those not in the know, it's actually a four-winged dragon-like beast from a moon in the Alpha Centauri system. So yeah...
    • The Na'vi themselves are classified as Homo pandora, which would mean that they are closely related to humans. As we know they evolved from some sort of alien lemur creature, and not hominids transported from Earth, this is wrong.

From what I know, codes for Zoological and Botanical nomenclature allow homonym genuses between themselves. Maybe if alien species were discovered it would be valid to have homonym taxa with terrestrial species? Of course, this would be up to the discretion to taxonomists, but if it can be used for Earth species, the possibility of it repeating for alien species would render these examples invalid, in my opinon. What do you think?
12:37:16 PM Aug 16th 2011
  • That is correct. To be precise, taxon names must be unique within a kingdom, but can be reused in different kingdoms. So if Pandoran "animals" were classed as a new kingdom (as would be sensible, given that they are completely unrelated to Earth animals), then reusing genus names such as Homo and Pterodactylus would be permitable. But probably not advisable, at least for similar-looking creatures, because it would give the false impression that there were related.
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