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July 10, 2010 4:53 PM   Subscribe

Bio-knowledgable people ! What are your good resources for explaining Biological Classification to a child (and a pretty uninformed father !)

I was explaining to my 8 year old yesterday why the words "Tagetes patula" appeared on the back of a package of Marigold seeds and that led me off into trying to explain (what little I myself knew of) the Linnean system of Biological Classification.

I've found some good stuff online to help me with this but I'd appreciate any recommendations to help with understanding this stuff (which in our case also involves understanding biology more than we do !). I think we're interested in plants/animals more than cells etc.

Also I wondered is there some sort of graphical browser which would illustrate the way that all living things are classified within Kingdom, Phylum, Class etc ? I imagine a sort of 'tree of pictures' which would allow you to quickly and easily see examples of things which are placed into, for instance, one class as opposed to those which are classifed into another ?
posted by southof40 to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This would be the definitive graphical browser: Tree of Life. Good luck... taxonomy is fun and kinda intuitive at the base of it!
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 5:51 PM on July 10, 2010

If your child (or you) learns by doing rather than observing, you could try playing with the caminalcules.

They are made up animals used for teaching (mostly college students) about phylogenies. If you print out the pictures from here, you could start arranging them by similarity and end up with a decent tree of life and see roughly how it is done (I would ignore all the character state stuff for now).
posted by scodger at 6:06 PM on July 10, 2010

The first thing you need to get across is the idea of a nested hierarchy. So you talk about nations, states, counties, cities, neighborhoods.

Note that the world has many nations. Nations contain several states (or provinces). A state has several counties.

Then you make the analogy with the taxonomic tree, and point out that the full description of the taxonomy of a given species is kind of like a person's mailing address. The genera is the street in the mailing address, and the species is the house number.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:12 PM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

My six-year-old just bought a book the other day called Tree of Life that covers the five kingdoms and then delves down into each. It seemed quite good when I read it to him. It ends with a heavy-handed environmental message I didn't love, but otherwise I was impressed with it and he enjoyed it, as did my nine-year-old. Not quite the graphical interface you hope for, but a good intro nonetheless.
posted by not that girl at 6:40 PM on July 10, 2010

One problem here is that the number of kingdoms keeps changing. The five kingdom model was only current for maybe 15 or 20 years. I think the current model is three: Eukaryota, Prokaryota, and Archaea. (All of which I probably spelled wrong.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:46 PM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Chocolate Pickle: "One problem here is that the number of kingdoms keeps changing. The five kingdom model was only current for maybe 15 or 20 years. I think the current model is three: Eukaryota, Prokaryota, and Archaea. (All of which I probably spelled wrong.)"

The old model suggested that the most basic taxanomic division in life was between cellular organisms with (Eu) nuclei (Karyote) or Eukaryotes and organisms without (Pro) nuclei or Prokaryotes. The current model reflects what was a growing understanding that bacteria were, if anything, more different from archea than eukaryotes as well as the fact that defining something by something it doesn't have is a no-no anyway.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:10 PM on July 10, 2010

This is complicated even for my biology students. This seems like a good place to start. Just a picture, but well designed. I'd be tempted to really gloss over phyla, classes, orders and families. (A note for you: you can always remember the order of groups like this: King Philip Came Over For Group Sex. Or for Good Spaghetti, but that's boring.) She'll be able to understand that there are different types of animals, for sure, but unless you are studying the animals themselves, it doesn't really matter if they are related because they are in the same family or in the same order. Have her lump things together like "things with no backbones". She will probably lump jellyfish with worms, but that doesn't matter at this point. Or maybe she'll see the relationship between the wild cats. As far as genus/species names, I like to think of it like given names and family names. You and she share a last name (like zebras and horses share Equus) but you are different so you have different first names (and zebras and horses are related but not the same, so they have different names-- Equus quagga and Equus ferus.) (Note: Technically, they are Equus equus quagga and equus equus ferus, but don't confuse her with subgeni.)

Not sure if this makes sense. Memail me if you have any specific questions I can answer for you.
posted by ms.v. at 8:58 PM on July 10, 2010

Your kid probably already understands classification. She knows that dogs are dogs, and cats are cats. ms.v.'s advice is great, and jives well with theories of children's cognitive development. At your kid's age, working on classifying animals into different groups based on how alike they are is a good thing to practice. Maybe even have her try sorting pictures of animals into groups, and then challenge her to think of another way to group them. But classification relies on the idea of groups and subgroups, and it's very hard for children of her age to understand the idea of one category being subsumed into another. To them, it looks like you just destroyed whole categories when you say "And difflers and snartles are both members of zimmertols." Bear in mind that children of her age also have difficulty with conserving length and volume -- their brains are still very much growing these abilities. Let her practice classifying stuff, but don't get too fussed if she doesn't seem to get it immediately.

Old-skool Linnaean classification was actually pretty loose, and based just on physical likeness, especially the physical likeness of plant genitalia. He was working before Darwin, of course. What you're really after is the idea of classifying living things based on their relatedness, right? It's a good idea to work backwards from your family for that. Talk about how she and any siblings she might have are very closely related, and that her cousins or aunts and uncles are not so closely related. Talk to her about how we can trace back our relatedness to our grandparents, and our great grandparents. This *should* eventually spark the idea that all humans are related in the WAY WAY long ago, and that's what you're going for.

Phil over at Bad Astronomy has a recommendation on a book you might try. His recommendation is very strong.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 11:18 PM on July 10, 2010

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