26 Organizing Plants and Animals

People are living things, but we’re going to discuss organizing people in a separate lesson. So for now let’s talk about how we organize the non-human living things that we call PLANTS and ANIMALS.

This is a book about organizing, not about biology, so it won’t go into many details of the hierarchy of living things.  But here are some interesting facts about the scientific, cultural, and language organization of plants and animals.

Scientists have organized living things in a biological taxonomy based on evolution.   They estimate that there about 9 million different life forms on Earth.   This SCIENTIFIC  organizing system is complemented by CULTURAL organizing systems that distinguish plants and animals according to how we interact with them.  Languages also have many COLLECTIVE NOUNS for referring to groups of plants and animals of different types.

There are about 8 million species of animals, about 400,000 species of plants, and about 600,000 species of fungi (a very strange category that includes mushrooms and yeast that scientists describe as in between plants and animals).

Scientific Organization of Animals

The animal kingdom is divided into two subcategories based on the property test “does the animal have a backbone?”   Animals with a backbone are called vertebrates, and that category is subdivided into categories for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes.  VERTEBRATES are the animals we see most often, but they are a tiny fraction of all animal species, only about 3%.   Animals that don’t have a backbone are called INVERTEBRATES, and by far the largest subcategory is that for insects.   There are more than one million species of insects!

Cultural Organization of Animals

Animals can be categorized according to how people use them:

  • As food for people
  • As food for other  animals
  • As sources of power to move things
  • As  materials for clothing
  • As pets or “helpers” (like hunting or guide dogs)
  • In social, religious, or ceremonial contexts

Because these categories are based on human decisions rather than on “hard science,”  individuals or groups can organize the categories differently and they change over time.   Some religions and vegetarians disagree with the idea that animals can be used as food.  An animal that is categorized as a pet in some cultures can be categorized as food in another.   (Did you know that some people like to eat dog meat?)

Collective Nouns for Animals

Some examples of collective nouns for organized groups of animals (note that some collective nouns can be used to represent a group of people or a group of animals):

  • Army (of ants)
  • Caravan (of camels)
  • Colony (of bats or rabbits)
  • Den (of bears or wolves)
  • Flock (of birds)
  • Herd (of buffalo, cattle, deer)
  • Pack (of dogs or wolves)
  • Pod (of whales)
  • Swarm (of insects)
  • School (of fish)

Scientific Organization of Plants

The plant kingdom is divided into two subcategories based on the property test “does the plant use roots and stems to take in water and nutrients?”  These VASCULAR plants are the familiar ones like trees, shrubs, grass, vegetables, and flowers.   NON-VASCULAR plants like mosses and algae  are much less common.

Cultural Organization of Plants

Plants can be categorized according to how people use them; some of the categories are the same as those for animals:

  • As food for people
  • As food for animals
  • As materials  for clothing
  • In social, religious, or ceremonial contexts

Plants have other uses that contrast with some of the uses of animals:

  • As medicines or as poisons
  • As building material
  • As fuels

Some plants fall into more than one category.   Tea can be thought of as food, as medicine, or as an important ingredient in social interactions.   Plants can also be categorized by where they grow, their growing seasons, and whether they are perennials (they regrow themselves) or annuals (must be replanted every year)

As with the cultural organization of animals,  cultural organization of plants can differ for individuals or groups and they change over time.   Bamboo and straw were once very common building materials  but you probably don’t live in a house constructed from them today.

Collective Nouns for Plants

There are fewer collective nouns for groups of plants than for animals, but these should be familiar:

  • Bed (of flowers)
  • Bouquet (of flowers)
  • Forest (of trees)
  • Grove (of trees)
  • Orchard (of trees)
  • Paddy (of rice plants)


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"The Discipline of Organizing" for Kids Copyright © 2022 by Robert J Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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