Classification of Living Things

Amazingly, new species of plants and animals are being discovered every year. The ASU International Institute for Species Exploration has begun publishing a list of the top 10 new species to attract attention to the sciences of classification and taxonomy. Take a look at the Top 10 New Species for 2008.

The finds from last year include the world's smallest snake and the world's longest insect. I can see why we might miss a tiny snake, but an insect 22 inches long? I guess no one noticed because it looks like a stick. A new type of caffeine-free coffee plant was found too.

We humans tend to put things in groups. According to the most recent classification scheme for living things that most scientists use, there are five major groups, or kingdoms: Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae and Animalia. This chart explains what is found in each group.

Once the living thing is placed in a group with other similar living things, it is given a scientific name. This is the job of scientists called taxonomists. Because there are so many living things, taxonomists specialize on certain groups, for example beetles or ants.

According to Quentin Wheeler at Arizona State University, more than 50 new life forms are found every day. That means we are going to need scientists to classify living things for a long time to come.

Classification Activity for Children

Sorting is an important precursor for classification.

For young children gather anything that can be sorted and sort by any feature you can think of. My son learned his colors very early because one of his favorite games was sorting all his toys by color. You can sort by soft, shiny, hard, shapes, even by opposites. Have fun!

Later graduate to sorting various toy animals (start with vertebrates) by classes:  fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Add insects and spiders. You may also sort by other characteristics, such as carnivore (meat eater), herbivore (plant eater) or decomposer (eats dead plants). Make a box labeled with each characteristic or simply make heaps on the floor.

The guessing game "twenty questions" also can be modified to act like a classification key. Keys often use similar yes or no questions. Think of an object. Is it living or dead? Is it a plant? Is it a fish? Does it have big eyes?

To explore ways to classify things, have your children build their own classification scheme using objects from around the house. Fill a bag with items such as paper clips, balls, crayons, chalk, coins, pencils, safety pins, etc, etc. Ask them to group the objects. What characteristics did they use? Would the balls and coins go together because they are both round, or did the coins go with the safety pins because they were metal? Name the groups, and then come up with another system.

One of the fun parts of classification is that there aren't any right answers, just best guesses.

Developing names for unknown living things can be fun too.

So what would you name this?

katydid nymph

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