USGS: The Importance Of Taxonomy

February 13, 1998

If, as the ancient proverb goes, "Wisdom begins by calling things by their right names," the developers of ITIS hope their taxonomic database will help scientists, property owners and resource managers exercise wisdom in their work and decision-making processes by enabling them to call organisms by their right names.

A few prominent examples of species whose taxonomic names have changed in recent years--confusing those trying to discover information on those species--include the great white shark, the pronghorn, the rainbow trout, the zigzag salamander, the important timber trees Port Orford cedar and Alaska cedar, and valued forage and range grasses western wheatgrass and tall fescue (now considered not a fescue, but a ryegrass).

It's important to realize, said Gary Waggoner, a scientist with the USGS Center for Biological Informatics in Denver, Colo., that taxonomic names are often in a state of flux. They reflect the current state of knowledge and understanding about a species.

To the surprise of many observers, said Waggoner, considerable changes have occurred in the discipline of naming and describing living things since the time of Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and founder of binomial taxonomic classification. Methodologies and technologies have advanced--including the intricate studies of genes themselves -- leading researchers to move species from one group into another.

Taxonomic nomenclature provides the most fundamental building blockfor information sharing on biological resources--the scientific name. Once a name is established, the researchers and land managers have the "common vocabulary" to discuss or research the organisms and to integrate a broad array of existing biological information.

The ITIS database, said Waggoner, who helped lead an interagency team that developed the database, gives the user a tool to link and integrate those name changes over time by providing all the synonyms of a single species. For example, in scientific literature the rainbow trout--an important species for resource managers--is found under different taxonomic names, and unless the researcher or land manager knows all of these names, important information could well be overlooked.

ITIS lists various common names as well as all the commonly encountered taxonomic synonyms that have been applied to the same species. For example, if you look up the rainbow trout in the ITIS database, you will find that its accepted taxonomic name for now is Oncorynchus mykiss and its synonyms are Salmo mykiss and Salmo gairdneri. Thus, says Waggoner, a land manager who is searching the scientific literature for information on this species and its management, its diseases, and so forth, would know to search under all three names.

Check out ITIS on the Internet/World Wide Web through the National Biological Information Infrastructure at

As the nation's largest water, earth, and biological science and civilian mapping agency, the USGS works in cooperation with more than 2000 organizations across the country to provide reliable, impartial, scientific information to resource managers, planners and other customers. This information is gathered in every state by USGS scientists to minimize the loss of life and property from natural disasters, contribute to the sound conservation, economic and physical development of the nation's natural resources and enhance the quality of life by monitoring water, biological, energy and mineral resources.
U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Geological Survey
Office of the Director, Eastern Region
150 National Center
Reston, VA 20192


Catherine Haecker
(703) 648-4283
(703) 648-4224

Duncan Morrow
(703) 648-4221
(703) 648-4042

Marion Fisher
(703) 648-4583
(703) 648-4588

This press release and in-depth information about USGS programs may be found on the USGS home page: To receive the latest USGS news releases automatically by email, send a request to . Specify the listserver(s) of interest from the following names: water-pr; geologic-hazards-pr; biological-pr; mapping-pr; products-pr; lecture-pr. In the body of the message write: subscribe (name of listserver) (your name). Example: subscribe water-pr joe smith.

US Geological Survey

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