Beginners Guide to Taxonomy: How to classify your Kalla-Wagga

The fire crackles in the jungle as small fragments of glowing ash float upwards. My eyes follow one piece as it flutters this way and that, and I watch as the glow slowly fades and I meet the billion stars above. The air is cool at night. I hear people in the camp quietly talk and laugh. We are in a small clearing in the jungle surrounded by black trees, with a thin path meandering into nothingness off to my left. I become lost; mesmerised by the stars. A sudden crack of a branch followed by a heavy thud brings me back. People group together as we hear some hurried rustlings in the trees above and slapping sounds fading out into the jungle. The group stay together. Silence.

The local woman, Sha’re, stands up, her foot crunching down softly on crispy leaves. A bird screeches in the blackness of the jungle as she raises her right arm, still holding her spear, and quietly says “Kalla-Wagga, Kalla-Wagga”. Her eyes look sad as she scans the trees above. She knows this creature and she has a name for it.

As a tight group we slowly inch towards the dark outline. The night is eerily still and the jungle silent. My heart pounds as I see the creature for the first time. Lying there, it doesn’t move. The arms are splayed above its head, its hairy back curved accentuating the knobbly vertebrae poking out. It is dead. Its large lifeless brown eyes look back at us. It is the most wonderfully odd creature I’ve ever seen.

The creature is clearly a male. Standing he would have reached a little above my hips, so he’s just under a metre tall. He has thick bristles of jet black hair covering his body, apart from the bottom of his back; here he has no tail, but a tuft of long, thick stands of lighter brown hair splayed out and upwards like a reject from the 80’s. The breast area is bare of hair, exposing the Kalla-Wagga’s small nipples.

The head has extremely quirky features. It has incredibly large pink ears. Directly behind each is a pink pouch on the skull; no hair on these domed oval pouches, they are raised out from the skull and appear to be more fatty then the surrounding head. Its mouth lays open, exposing its four curved incisors, small canines, pointy premolars and quite flat molars glistening slightly with the fire. Rolled out along the ground was the tongue, an enormously long tongue!

This was not the most striking feature of the creature. It had a ginormous ass! Very round, bare and very, very smooth skin, with two circular red markings near the top of each buttock. At the top of the legs near the hips there are large flaps of fairly thick bare skin.

I stare at this creature looking at every little detail, trying to take it all in. I jump as a soft hand touches my shoulder. Sha’re stands next to me. “There are stories,” she says in a low, quite voice, “of demons living in the jungle. Demons with glowing white faces and fiery red eyes.” A little smile curls her lip upwards. “Do not worry. They are just stories. We tell them to the children to keep them out of the jungle at night. We say, ‘if you go into the jungle at night, the Kalla-Wagga will get you.’ They never go into the jungle.”

She leads me back to the fire. We sit and Sha’re begins to tell me more about this creature, her Kalla-Wagga. They appear to spend most of their time in the trees foraging for their food in the higher canopy. This animal has a unique strategy for feeding; it uses its rather oversized ears, which it flaps loudly as they slowly climb from branch to branch. The loud thudding of the ears disturbs the little mini-beasts and small animals hiding up there, which the Kalla-Wagga swiftly gobbles down with the aid of its super long, super sticky tongue.

The strange big eared creature, with its extra large arse at home in the high canopy of the Congo rainforests.

The strange big eared creature, with its extra large arse at home in the high canopy of the Congo rainforests.

That was just one use of those iconic ears. The other use of the ears have are bizarrely linked to the big arse of the creature. Once a year, on the first new moon of August, all groups from the surrounding area congregate in their hundreds. Half way up a large mountain, mostly covered by cloud, is a small opening. So small you would miss it if you weren’t looking; but big enough for a Kalla-Wagga to walk through. Once through, the males leave the females near the entrance and make their way deeper inside the cave until they reach a chamber; an enormous chamber. In the pure darkness you can hear the males shuffling around, appearing to find their own place; their own spot. The shuffling stops and the Kalla-Wagga does not make a sound. Out of the darkness, it seems a bright white face with glowing red eyes has just appeared, and another, and another, and a slap! The chamber is now full of faces and slaps.

Here, deep inside the cave, you really would think there were demons living there. It is actually not scary, but quite the opposite; it is the beautifully unusual mating ritual of the Kalla-Wagga. Once a year all members from the troops around this mountain meet to show off their best bits to find a mate. The males bend over, feet flat on the ground, legs straight and rear ends firmly up in the air. Tiny florescent pigments in the oversized buttocks begin to glow, creating a very large round white face, with piercing red eyes. Fluorescent pigments in the spiky hairs at the bottom of the Kalla-Wagga’s back also glow a bright yellow. The large flaps on skin on the hips begin to slap their own buttocks creating soft slapping sounds. The point of this self-flagellation becomes immediately apparent; the flaps move onto the buttocks and off the buttocks in a rhythm, blacking out the bright florescent display; it creates a beautiful hypnotic spectacle. Evidence of the ‘beauty’ of this bizarre display is shown by the female’s excited howls echoing around the chamber of the cave.

Coupled with the display of rear ends, the males begin to thud their large ears on the oval pouches on the heads. The thuds appear to be in tune to their dancing bottoms. They are low and resonate through the chamber. Astonishingly each individual has its own rhythm, and even more astonishingly a female can focus on one individual! The females chose their favourite display and pull their chosen suitor off to another section in the cave. Led by the luminescent buttocks, the two lovers find a quiet spot to mate. But this is no quick frolic in the dark. These animals take their time, for such intimacy is only enjoyed once a year. As the sun rises the exhausted couples exit the cave, and with a final few slaps of their ears they leap off to their home territory. Perhaps they will meet again. Perhaps not.

What kind of creature is the Kalla-Wagga and where does it fit on the enormously diverse and beautiful tree of life? Sha’re helps me obtain permission to borrow the dead Kalla-Wagga and he flies with me, safely stored for the long journey home.

I search through museum collections around the world and brry myself in glorious books about hairy creatures from the Congo. This is a new animal never seen before by science. The creature I have, now staring back at me ghoulishly from its eternal formaldehyde home, is the type specimen for this species; the specimen which is the first of this species to be discovered, described and named. But what species is it? How do I know what this enigmatic creature is and how the heck does someone classify it?!

We begin our quest for classification at the very beginning; the largest group, the Domain. All life on Earth (almost) fits comfortably under three Domains; Archaea (single celled organisms), Bacteria (organisms without a nucleus) and Eukarya (organisms which have a nucleus, including all plants and animals). It is safe to say the Kalla-Wagga belongs with the Eukarya, along with all the plants and animals on the planet, mainly because we don’t need a microscope to see the creature.

Awesome. So we know the Kalla-Wagga is a eukaryote. That was easy. Under each Domain, is a list of Kingdoms where this beast needs to be placed. Our creature is in the Domain: Eukarya, so we can ignore the other Domains. Under Eukarya, there are six different groups where are Kalla-Wagga may sit; Archaea, Bacteria, Protista, Plantae (seaweeds, land plants), Fungi (mushrooms, yeast, moulds, etc), Animalia. (There have been debates about the number of Kingdoms mainly focusing on the smaller microscopic organisms. Six Kingdoms appears to be the current consensus.) This is another easy one; our Kalla-Wagga isn’t a microbe, or mushroom, or shrub; it is an animal. So we have the Kalla-Wagga in the Domain: Eukarya; Kingdom: Animalia. This classification business isn’t so tricky after all!

The next dividing group is the Phylum. There are 35 different Phyla under the Kingdom Animalia (the plural of Phylum is Phyla). So where are we placing our Kalla-Wagga? Well, fifteen of these are Phyla for different types of worms, and our new creature definitely isn’t a worm! There are a lot of groups for jelly like creatures, including jellyfish and the Kalla-Wagga clearly does not share any of the features of these Phyla. There is a Phylum for sea mats (Bryozoa), sponges (Porifera), water bears (Tardigrada) and several others grouping creatures which share similar body features which the Kalla-Wagga clearly doesn’t sit. Another group, the Arthropoda could be a good candidate; everything in this group has jointed legs and skeletons on the outside of their bodies, like crabs, spiders, flies, and beetles. We look at our Kalla-Wagga. No skeleton on the outside. The way he is curved you can see his spine pressing out in his back. He has a backbone! Now we know which Phylum he belongs to; Chordata. All animals with a backbone (vertebrates) are placed under the Phylum Chordata.

Ace. Our quest for classifying the Kalla-Wagga goes well. Just a few more steps until we can name this creature. From here on in there are different groups bunching together animals with more and more similarities. We will need to look at a few more groups; Class, Subclass, Order, Family, Genus and species. Thrown above and below the first four of these main groups is a big mix of other groups; Infraclasses, Clades, Superorders, Grandorders, or Infraorders. For the purpose of classifying the Kalla-Wagga we will focus on the main groups highlighted in bold.

The next group down is the Class. There are seven Classes where our big-eared friend may sit; Aves (birds), Reptilia (reptiles), Mammalia (hairy, sweaty, lactating mammals), Amphibia (frogs, newts and salamanders), Agnatha (lampreys), Chondrichthyes (sharks, skates and rays), and Osteichthyes (boney fish). We know the Kalla-Wagga is not a fish, so we can discard the Agnatha, the Chondrichthyes, and the Osteichthyes. He doesn’t have wings or feathers, so would not sit well in the Class Aves. He has hair covering his body, different shaped teeth, and nipples; these are all features shared by animals in the Class Mammalia.

All mammals share the same features; hair, lactate milk to their young, three ear bones and an articulated jaw.  Image from Wiki: George Shuklin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%9C%D1%8B%D1%88%D1%8C_2.jpg)

All mammals share the same features; hair, lactate milk to their young, three ear bones and an articulated jaw.
Image from here.

Fantastic! Our Kalla-Wagga is a mammal. Here we can finesse it out even more! The next group is Subclass and the Mammalia is divided into three Subclasses; the Prototheria (monotremes; egg laying mammals), the Marsupialia (the young are carried in a pouch), and the Placentalia (the young are nourished by a placenta before birth). (Again, this can get very complex with Infraclasses, Clades and others. The important split for this is the three groups just mentioned.) Sha’re has told us that the Kalla-Wagga is born live and they feed from the mothers breast, not in a pouch; so these mammals belong in the Subclass group, Placentalia.

We are doing very well indeed. And just a few more steps until we reach the end! So far, we have worked out that our shiny arsed friend sits in the Domain: Eukarya; Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Mammalia; Subclass: Placentalia.

The next group we need to work out is the Order. Under Placentalia, there are 12 different Orders. I quite like the Order Pilosa because this has a cool translation; the ‘hairy ones’. But the Pilosa contains animals which contain very small teeth, including armadillos and sloths; we know the Kalla-Wagga has a lot of fairly big teeth, so doesn’t sit in this group. Looking at the features of the other Orders helps us work out where Sh’are’s demon will fit. Our animal does not have hooves, like a horse or camel, so we won’t place it in the Orders Perissodactyls or Artiodactyls, respectively. Neither does the Kalla-Wagga have winged hands, so we won’t place him in the Order Chiroptera (bats), or curved incisor teeth, so he’s not in the Order Rodentia (rodents). The Kalla-Wagga is not adapted for ocean life, like a whale or a dolphin, so doesn’t belong in the Order Cetacea, nor does he belong in the Order Sirenia, because he doesn’t have flippers and a tail that is shaped like a paddle (like a dugong, or a manatee). He’s not an elephant (Order Proboscidea), nor a rabbit (Order Lagomorpha), nor a bear or lion (Order Carnivora). We have filtered it down to the last Order, the Primates; and the Kalla-Wagga shares the main characteristics of this group including, fingernails and toenails instead of claws, grasping feet and hands, eye sockets tat face forwards, and very good vision.

All Primates share common features, including  Image from Wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hamadryas_Baboon.jpg)

All Primates share common features, including fingernails and toenails instead of claws, grasping hands and feet, and eye sockets facing forwards. 
Image from here.

Almost there! Now we have to find out which Family this creature belongs. There are 16 Families in the Order Primates. Although tempting, because of the rather cool monkey names, we won’t put him in the Family Atelidae (which includes the amazing woolly spider monkeys, woolly monkeys, howler monkeys and spider monkeys). One key features helps us dismiss other Families; the Kalla-Wagga has no tail. There are two Families which group together Primates without tails; the Hylobatidae (gibbons) and the Hominidae (chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans, and humans). All the other Families in this Order have tails. The Hylobatidae (gibbons) share anatomical details that are more similar to monkeys and they move by swinging their arms through the trees, with their wrist is made up of a ball and socket joint. The Kalla-Wagga shares more features with chimpanzees and gorillas than gibbons, so we can place him in the Family Hominidae.

We are now at the penultimate stage of finding a name for the strange beast we found in the jungle that night. We reach the Genus (plural genera). This is the group that holds all the species below it; some genera will only have one group of organisms (a species) below it, such as the platypus; whereas some genera may contain many species such as the Genus Panthera includes the species of lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard, and snow leopard. In the Family Hominidae, there are 4 different genera; Pongo (orang-utans – 2 species); Pan (chimpanzees – 2 species); Gorilla (gorillas – 2 species); and Homo (humans – 1 species).

It will be useful for us to look at the distinguishing features and characteristics that make these 4 genera separate from one another. The species in the Genus Pongo share red/brown coloured hair, cheek pads (which the males use for mating) and are very efficient swingers through the trees. The beautiful Genus Gorilla are ground dwelling hominine which walk on their knuckles and their lower jaws stick out a lot more than their maxilla (the upper palate in the mouth). Chimpanzees (Pan) have arms which are longer than their legs, walk on their knuckles, and have small brains (between 280 – 500 cubic centimetres). The species in the Genus Pan also have broader soles on their feet, and shorter toes than orang-utans. The one living species in the Genus Homo walks upright on two legs, and has a large brain (over 600 cubic centimetres). Our punk rocker ape shares a few similarities with each of these four genera, but not enough to place him comfortably in one of them. So we have a creature from a Genus (and species) which doesn’t yet exist!

(The details defining which organism belongs in which Genus is much more detailed than described above. There are detailed anatomical measurements which place an animal (or plant) comfortably in a certain Genus. For example, detailed measurements of the skeleton of individual species provide a range of measurements in that species; generally those bones within that range will be for that species. A thousand (or more) individuals in a species will be measured and analysed providing a benchmark of ranges for that species. The majority of the time palaeontologists studying fossils often only have one bone to work from, and here the skeletal analysis is vital. The shape, curvature, length and girth of that individual bone can be enough to say what species it belonged to, or if they have discovered a new species.)

This is very exciting. The Kalla-Wagga has no Genus. We can name a new Genus for him to fit into. We will have to write a very detailed scientific paper comparing him to the other Primates, and in particular the other species in the Hominidae. I am tempted to name the creature Suntfaceiem after first seeing it’s bizarre rear end; literal translation “arse face”. I refrain from this ever so slightly witty Latin name and decide to call the Genus after our wonderful guide; Genus Sharepithicus, which translates to ‘Sha’re’s ape’.

As with the Genus, this is a new species of animal. A species is an individual group of organisms that can mate and produce fertile offspring. The group of individuals is distinct enough for other members of the Genus to be named as an individual species. For some creatures this is visually clear, such as the lions and tigers both belong to the same Genus but are different species.  For others, such as beetles and flies, it may be more subtle differences which defines the species, such as the shape of the genitalia.

Our Kalla-Wagga, propped up in his oversized jam jar filled to the top with formalin is the type specimen; the specimen that defines this species. And of course there are rules to naming a new species. I can’t name it after myself, but as you saw with the Genus I can name it after someone else. I am allowed to name it, as I am scientifically describing it in a scientific journal. I will need to inform the International Committee for Zoological or Botanical Nomenclature of the new Genus and species name I propose – they check that it hasn’t been used before.

I am tempted to name it after one of the greatest people in science, ever; Mr Thomas Henry Huxley. I think about adding the species name huxleyii to the new genus. (When writing the Genus and species name it is written in italics. If writing by hand then it should be underlined. The Genus always starts with a capital, and the species is always in lower case.) The publication has the new species in the title: “A new nocturnal Primate (Family Hominidae; Sharepithicus eleanorii) from the Congo Basin and it’s rather unique mating ritual”. I name it after my wife. (Best to be in the good books.) It’s a ruddy good job I didn’t name this beast Suntfaciem eleanorii – ‘arse faced Eleanor’ is not the way to immortalise one’s beloved.

We have done it! We have gone through all the different groups and even named a new species! Here are a few familiar creatures and how their taxonomy is similar higher up, and then splits lower down;

Domain                 

Eukaryka

Eukaryka

Eukaryka

Eukaryka

Kingdom              

Animalia

Animalia

Animalia

Animalia

Phylum                  

Chordata

Arthropoda

Chordata

Chordata

Class                      

Mammalia

Insecta

Amphibia

Mammalia

Subclass              

Placentalia

Placentalia

Order                    

Primates

Lepidoptera

Anura

Primates

Family                  

Hominidae

Sphingidae

Ranidae

Hominidae

Genus + species   

Homo sapiens

Laothoe populi

Rana temporaria

Sharepithicus eleanorii

(Human)

(Poplar Hawk Moth)

(Common Frog)

(Kalla-Wagga)

 

What a wonderful hypothetical creature! (Hardcore Stargate SG-1 fans may have noticed Dr Jackson’s lost love.) There is no reason that a creature like this has never existed or won’t exist one day in the future. But for today (as far as I know) the Kalla-Wagga doesn’t exist. It is entirely plausible. Sexual selection has created a wonderful variety of extreme forms from the beautiful mating rituals of birds of paradise, to the delightfully eccentric noses of the proboscis monkeys.

As well as being a clear simple way of organising all life on the planet, the beauty of classification is how it shows how closely animals are related. All mammals share a common ancestor which diverged from reptiles around 300 million years ago. You won’t find a mouse in the Class Insecta. As you work your way down the different groups, animals are more closely related; all Primates are more closely related to each other than they are to kangaroos. Genetics is showing these relationships in even more detail, and as a result some organisms have had to be moved from one Genus to another.

The ‘Kalla-Wagga’ could have easily have been a fish, or an insect, or a salamander. To identify any creature you like, you would go through similar steps and look at the features that determine each of the groups until you reach the end. The process and long words in taxonomy can be confusing and sometimes put people off. But now you know a little more you can look at any animal or plant and try and identify it as it’s your own enigmatic and beautiful Kalla-Wagga. Think of taxonomy as a Kalla-Wagga slapping its own arse; sexy, beautiful, elegant and effortless (and apparently painless).

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3 responses to “Beginners Guide to Taxonomy: How to classify your Kalla-Wagga

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