Father of Taxonomy
23 May 1707 — 10 January 1778
On the 300th anniversary of his birth, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus is remembered for his gift to science of standardising the naming of plants and animals.
What’s in a name?
While Linnaeus collected, described and named many specimens, his prime scientific contribution was to establish conventions for the naming of living organisms that became universally accepted in the scientific community. He was the first to consistently use a binomial system of classification, giving organisms a one-word general name (called the genus) associated with a one-word specific epithet. For example, in the name Homo sapiens, which Linnaeus gave to humans, Homo is the genus, and sapiens the species.
Linnaeus was a prolific writer, and his many publications encouraged the standardisation of binomial nomenclature. His book Species Plantarum, first published in 1753, is accepted as the starting point of the present system of botanical nomenclature. The 10th edition of his Systema Naturae, published in 1758, is considered the starting point of zoological nomenclature. In them Linnaeus provided a concise, usable survey of the world’s plants and animals as then known, about 7 700 species of plants and 4 400 species of animals. Linnaeus published in Latin, the accepted international scholarly language of his time, and biologists still use it today to formulate the scientific names of newly described organisms.
The Australian link
Although Linnaeus never travelled to Australia, he named many tropical plants and animals, including species native to Australia, brought to Europe by other explorers. For example, Linnaeus named the Southern Cassowary, Casuarius casuarius, some native Australian ferns, including Asplenium trichomanes, and the well-known Melaleuca and Baeckea genera. Today, there are over 1 000 native and introduced species in Australia that were named by Linnaeus.
Linnaeus was a passionate and charismatic teacher; his lectures at the University of Uppsala drew scholars from all over Europe. He cultivated a close circle of pupils, whom he called his ‘apostles’, and sent them on pioneering journeys of exploration around the world. Perhaps the most famous of these for Australians was Daniel Solander. Solander was the naturalist on Captain James Cook’s first around-the-world voyage from 1768–1771 and brought back to Europe the first major plant collections from Australia.
Since Linnaeus laid the foundations for the systematic study and classification of plants and animals known as taxonomy, the tools and methods of classifying and naming life on earth have undergone numerous technological and conceptual revolutions. Today, scientists use sophisticated computational and molecular tools, such as gene coding, to uncover the relationships between species, as well as the traditional methods Linnaeus used.
Through their work, taxonomists provide information that is fundamental to the understanding and management of our biological world. The work currently being done by the small community of taxonomists in Australia is vital to the maintenance of the nation’s biodiversity conservation and biosecurity, to ecosystem management and agriculture, and in the area of biodiscovery.
© Commonwealth of Australia 2007.
The Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) supports research and publications on the taxonomy (classification, identity, biology and relationships) of Australia’s rich biodiversity. ABRS is a program of the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Water Resources.
Pictures: In Systema Naturae, Linnaeus presented a system of plant classification based on plants’ sexual organs; Casuarius casuarius (L.), the Southern Cassowary (© Commonwealth of Australia 2007. Artist: T.Wright); Asplenium trichomanes L., a native Australian fern (© Tim Galloway 2007); A Banksia serrata specimen was collected by Daniel Solander and Joseph Banks in 1770 on the Endeavour voyage. Banksia serrata was named in 1781 by Linnaeus’s son to honour Joseph Banks (Photo: L.L.Lee © Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust, Sydney, Australia 2007); Molecular analysis of Australian Citrus being performed.
Poster design: Graphic Ark. Printer: Paragon Printers.
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Australian Biological Resources Study
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