Taxonomy is the biological system of names we have created to guide everything from research to conservation. Using Carl Linnaeus's two-name nomenclature, we have an internationally recognized reference system for all known species. Each name is a doorway to the vast catalog of human knowledge associated with it. In spotting Melanerpes erythrocephalus
— Red-headed Woodpecker — at a swamp in upstate New York, for example, we tap into a web of information. For example, the area must have ample dead trees that the woodpeckers require for foraging and nesting. Perhaps there are relatively frequent fires that produce the dead trees. And somehow, invasive starlings haven't become too prevalent there to outcompete the woodpeckers for nest cavities. It's like opening a book; Melanerpes erythrocephalus
is the title on the first page.
With birds, people have had the peculiar advantage of easily distinguishable species. Unlike with some groups of rodents, insects, many plants, or other more cryptic groups, we recognize a robin, a cardinal, a pigeon, etc. What humans have informally recognized as different "kinds" of birds are often recognized by scientists as evolutionarily distinct as well, sharing their own unique evolutionary histories, and rarely if ever interbreeding with each other. What this means is critical: our names for these birds reflect actual units
of biodiversity, what we call a species
It's like with family names. Let's imagine a perfect world where your last name is used only by your family and its ancestors. It would be misleading for your last name to be held by your family and
a small group of strangers that are unrelated to you. Similarly, taxonomy seeks to give unique names only to populations that are in one genealogical line, a "monophyletic
" lineage, not to a few unrelated groups that are here and there on the tree of life. Species, Genus, Family…they're all evolutionary terms, created to define organisms that are on one "branch" on the tree of life. Even though the names themselves may be arbitrary (why "Northern Cardinal" instead of "Crested Redbird"?), they are meant to represent something real