What's in a Name?


Instructional Level: High School

Driving Question(s):

How is a changing climate related to fragile ecosystems like vernal pools and how does that relationship impact biodiversity and, in particular, the spotted salamander?

Climate changes affect both the vernal pool and the spotted salamander in different ways. A warming climate may mean less winter precipitation which leads to smaller vernal pools. A warmer climate will stimulate earlier migration dates for the salamander with smaller available habitat for reproduction.




Students are introduced to the physical features of the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and will correlate those features with the scientific name.


Students will:

  1. Visually examine images of three living organisms.
  2. Describe prominent physical characteristics of each organism.
  3. Explain how scientific names can relate to physical characteristics.

Lesson Materials

  • Image of great white shark
  • Image of spotted salamander
  • Image of spotted salamander with anatomical features labeled
  • Image of monarch butterfly



Students should not know the common name or scientific name of the spotted salamander prior to this activity.

Part I

  1. Provide an image of an animal nearly all students are able to recognize. For example, have the students look at this image of a great white shark.Great White Jumping Out Of Water
  2. Ask students to give the common name of this shark.
  3. Have the students explain how this animal was given the common name white shark or great white shark. (think about color, size, etc.)
  4. Ask the students if they know the scientific name of the great white shark.
  5. Provide the scientific name of the shark to the students and ask them what does it translate to/from?
  6. Discuss how common names and scientific name can be derived using physical characteristics.

Part II

  1. Students will examine a picture of a spotted salamander and identify prominent physical features of the salamander.
    **Remember, do not give away the common or scientific name!**


    Photo, courtesy of www.mdsg.umd.edu/topics/k-12-lesson-plans/symbiosis-backbone

  1. Ask the students to create a common name for the salamander that incorporates these identified physical features. The more creative, the better.
  2. Then, present the students with the REAL common name and scientific name. An alternative would be to present several actual scientific names for organisms and see if students could select the correct name.
  3. Use the animated image below highlighting the spots on the salamanders back and blunt jawline.

Part III – Evaluation

  1. Provide students with an image of a Monarch butterfly.


  2. Provide students with the Monarch's scientific name and its meaning: Danaus plexippus, “sleepy transformation.”
  3. Have students complete an exit ticket the Monarch butterfly to the meaning of its scientific name.


HS-LS1-2 Developing and Using Models

Modeling in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to using, synthesizing, and developing models to predict and show relationships among variables between systems and their components in the natural and designed worlds.

  • Develop and use a model based on evidence to illustrate the relationships between systems or between components of a system.


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