Taxonomy (from Ancient Greek τάξις (taxis), meaning
'arrangement', and -νομία (-nomia), meaning 'method') is the
science of defining and naming groups of biological organisms on the
basis of shared characteristics. Organisms are grouped together into
taxa (singular: taxon) and these groups are given a taxonomic rank;
groups of a given rank can be aggregated to form a super-group of
higher rank, thus creating a taxonomic hierarchy. The principal ranks
in modern use are domain, kingdom, phylum (division is sometimes used
in botany in place of phylum), class, order, family, genus and
species. The Swedish botanist
Carl Linnaeus is regarded as the father
of taxonomy, as he developed a system known as
Linnaean taxonomy for
categorization of organisms and binomial nomenclature for naming
With the advent of such fields of study as phylogenetics, cladistics,
and systematics, the
Linnaean system has progressed to a system of
modern biological classification based on the evolutionary
relationships between organisms, both living and extinct.
1.1 Alpha and beta taxonomy
1.2 Microtaxonomy and macrotaxonomy
2.1.1 Early taxonomists
2.1.2 Bhagavata Purana
2.1.3 Ancient times
Renaissance and Early Modern
2.2 The Linnaean era
3 Modern system of classification
3.1 Kingdoms and domains
3.2 Recent comprehensive classifications
4.1 Classifying organisms
4.2 Taxonomic descriptions
4.3 Author citation
7 See also
11 External links
The exact definition of taxonomy varies from source to source, but the
core of the discipline remains: the conception, naming, and
classification of groups of organisms. As points of reference,
recent definitions of taxonomy are presented below:
Theory and practice of grouping individuals into species, arranging
species into larger groups, and giving those groups names, thus
producing a classification
A field of science (and major component of systematics) that
encompasses description, identification, nomenclature, and
The science of classification, in biology the arrangement of organisms
into a classification
"The science of classification as applied to living organisms,
including study of means of formation of species, etc."
"The analysis of an organism's characteristics for the purpose of
Systematics studies phylogeny to provide a pattern that can be
translated into the classification and names of the more inclusive
field of taxonomy" (listed as a desirable but unusual definition)
The varied definitions either place taxonomy as a sub-area of
systematics (definition 2), invert that relationship (definition 6),
or appear to consider the two terms synonymous. There is some
disagreement as to whether biological nomenclature is considered a
part of taxonomy (definitions 1 and 2), or a part of systematics
outside taxonomy. For example, definition 6 is paired with the
following definition of systematics that places nomenclature outside
Systematics: "The study of the identification, taxonomy, and
nomenclature of organisms, including the classification of living
things with regard to their natural relationships and the study of
variation and the evolution of taxa".
A whole set of terms including taxonomy, systematic biology,
systematics, biosystematics, scientific classification, biological
classification, and phylogenetics have at times had overlapping
meanings – sometimes the same, sometimes slightly different, but
always related and intersecting. The broadest meaning of
"taxonomy" is used here. The term itself was introduced in 1813 by de
Candolle, in his Théorie élémentaire de la botanique.
Alpha and beta taxonomy
Not to be confused with Alpha diversity.
The term "alpha taxonomy" is primarily used today to refer to the
discipline of finding, describing, and naming taxa, particularly
species. In earlier literature, the term had a different meaning,
referring to morphological taxonomy, and the products of research
through the end of the 19th century.
William Bertram Turrill
William Bertram Turrill introduced the term "alpha taxonomy" in a
series of papers published in 1935 and 1937 in which he discussed the
philosophy and possible future directions of the discipline of
… there is an increasing desire amongst taxonomists to consider
their problems from wider viewpoints, to investigate the possibilities
of closer co-operation with their cytological, ecological and
genetical colleagues and to acknowledge that some revision or
expansion, perhaps of a drastic nature, of their aims and methods, may
be desirable … Turrill (1935) has suggested that while accepting the
older invaluable taxonomy, based on structure, and conveniently
designated "alpha", it is possible to glimpse a far-distant taxonomy
built upon as wide a basis of morphological and physiological facts as
possible, and one in which "place is found for all observational and
experimental data relating, even if indirectly, to the constitution,
subdivision, origin, and behaviour of species and other taxonomic
groups". Ideals can, it may be said, never be completely realized.
They have, however, a great value of acting as permanent stimulants,
and if we have some, even vague, ideal of an "omega" taxonomy we may
progress a little way down the Greek alphabet. Some of us please
ourselves by thinking we are now groping in a "beta" taxonomy.
Turrill thus explicitly excludes from alpha taxonomy various areas of
study that he includes within taxonomy as a whole, such as ecology,
physiology, genetics, and cytology. He further excludes phylogenetic
reconstruction from alpha taxonomy (pp. 365–366).
Later authors have used the term in a different sense, to mean the
delimitation of species (not subspecies or taxa of other ranks), using
whatever investigative techniques are available, and including
sophisticated computational or laboratory techniques. Thus,
Ernst Mayr in 1968 defined beta taxonomy as the classification of
ranks higher than species.
An understanding of the biological meaning of variation and of the
evolutionary origin of groups of related species is even more
important for the second stage of taxonomic activity, the sorting of
species into groups of relatives ("taxa") and their arrangement in a
hierarchy of higher categories. This activity is what the term
classification denotes; it is also referred to as beta taxonomy.
Microtaxonomy and macrotaxonomy
How species should be defined in a particular group of organisms gives
rise to practical and theoretical problems that are referred to as the
species problem. The scientific work of deciding how to define species
has been called microtaxonomy. By extension, macrotaxonomy
is the study of groups at higher taxonomic ranks, from subgenus and
above only, than species.
While some descriptions of taxonomic history attempt to date taxonomy
to ancient civilizations, a truly scientific attempt to classify
organisms did not occur until the 18th century. Earlier works were
primarily descriptive and focused on plants that were useful in
agriculture or medicine. There are a number of stages in this
scientific thinking. Early taxonomy was based on arbitrary criteria,
the so-called "artificial systems", including Linnaeus's system of
sexual classification. Later came systems based on a more complete
consideration of the characteristics of taxa, referred to as "natural
systems", such as those of de Jussieu (1789), de Candolle (1813) and
Bentham and Hooker (1862–1863). These were pre-evolutionary in
thinking. The publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species
(1859) led to new ways of thinking about classification based on
evolutionary relationships. This was the concept of phyletic systems,
from 1883 onwards. This approach was typified by those of Eichler
(1883) and Engler (1886–1892). The advent of molecular genetics and
statistical methodology allowed the creation of the modern era of
"phylogenetic systems" based on cladistics, rather than morphology
Naming and classifying our surroundings has probably been taking place
as long as mankind has been able to communicate. It would always have
been important to know the names of poisonous and edible plants and
animals in order to communicate this information to other members of
the family or group. Medicinal plant illustrations show up in Egyptian
wall paintings from c. 1500 BC, indicating that the uses of different
species were understood and that a basic taxonomy was in place.
In Canto 3, chapter 10 of
Bhagavata Purana 6 types of trees are
recognised, by name:
Vanaspatis – large trees that grow fruits without flowering
Drumas – large trees that bloom and give fruits
Osadhis – trees that die soon after they give fruits
Latas – creepers and tiny plants
Viruts – plants that grow as bushes
Tvaksaras – plants hollow inside with strong barks like bamboos
Further information: Aristotle's biology § Classification
Organisms were first classified by
Aristotle (Greece, 384–322 BC)
during his stay on the Island of Lesbos. He classified
beings by their parts, or in modern terms attributes, such as having
live birth, having four legs, laying eggs, having blood, or being
warm-bodied. He divided all living things into two groups: plants
and animals. Some of his groups of animals, such as Anhaima
(animals without blood, translated as invertebrates) and Enhaima
(animals with blood, roughly the vertebrates), as well as groups like
the sharks and cetaceans, are still commonly used today. His
Theophrastus (Greece, 370–285 BC) carried on this tradition,
mentioning some 500 plants and their uses in his Historia Plantarum.
Again, several plant groups currently still recognized can be traced
back to Theophrastus, such as Cornus, Crocus, and Narcissus.
Taxonomy in the
Middle Ages was largely based on the Aristotelian
system, with additions concerning the philosophical and
existential order of creatures. This included concepts such as the
Great chain of being
Great chain of being in the Western scholastic tradition, again
deriving ultimately from Aristotle.
Aristotelian system did not
classify plants or fungi, due to the lack of microscope at the
time, as his ideas were based on arranging the complete world in a
single continuum, as per the scala naturae (the Natural Ladder).
This, as well, was taken into consideration in the Great chain of
being. Advances were made by scholars such as Procopius, Timotheos
of Gaza, Demetrios Pepagomenos, and Thomas Aquinas. Medieval thinkers
used abstract philosophical and logical categorizations more suited to
abstract philosophy than to pragmatic taxonomy.
Renaissance and Early Modern
During the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and the Enlightenment,
categorizing organisms became more prevalent, and taxonomic works
became ambitious enough to replace the ancient texts. This is
sometimes credited to the development of sophisticated optical lenses,
which allowed the morphology of organisms to be studied in much
greater detail. One of the earliest authors to take advantage of this
leap in technology was the Italian physician Andrea Cesalpino
(1519–1603), who has been called "the first taxonomist". His
magnum opus De Plantis came out in 1583, and described more than 1500
plant species. Two large plant families that he first
recognized are still in use today: the
Brassicaceae. Then in the 17th century
John Ray (England,
1627–1705) wrote many important taxonomic works. Arguably his
greatest accomplishment was Methodus Plantarum Nova (1682), in
which he published details of over 18,000 plant species. At the time,
his classifications were perhaps the most complex yet produced by any
taxonomist, as he based his taxa on many combined characters. The next
major taxonomic works were produced by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort
(France, 1656–1708). His work from 1700, Institutiones Rei
Herbariae, included more than 9000 species in 698 genera, which
directly influenced Linnaeus, as it was the text he used as a young
The Linnaean era
Main article: Linnaean taxonomy
Title page of Systema Naturae, Leiden, 1735
The Swedish botanist
Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) ushered in a new
era of taxonomy. With his major works
Systema Naturae 1st Edition in
Species Plantarum in 1753, and
Systema Naturae 10th
Edition, he revolutionized modern taxonomy. His works implemented
a standardized binomial naming system for animal and plant
species, which proved to be an elegant solution to a chaotic and
disorganized taxonomic literature. He not only introduced the standard
of class, order, genus, and species, but also made it possible to
identify plants and animals from his book, by using the smaller parts
of the flower. Thus the
Linnaean system was born, and is still
used in essentially the same way today as it was in the 18th
century. Currently, plant and animal taxonomists regard Linnaeus'
work as the "starting point" for valid names (at 1753 and 1758
respectively). Names published before these dates are referred to
as "pre-Linnaean", and not considered valid (with the exception of
spiders published in Svenska Spindlar). Even taxonomic names
published by Linnaeus himself before these dates are considered
Modern system of classification
Evolutionary taxonomy and Phylogenetic nomenclature
Evolution of the vertebrates at class level, width of spindles
indicating number of families. Spindle diagrams are typical for
The same relationship, expressed as a cladogram typical for cladistics
Whereas Linnaeus aimed simply to create readily identifiable taxa, the
idea of the
Linnaean taxonomy as translating into a sort of dendrogram
of the Animal- and
Plant Kingdoms was formulated toward the end of the
18th century, well before
On the Origin of Species
On the Origin of Species was published.
Among early works exploring the idea of a transmutation of species
were Erasmus Darwin's 1796 Zoönomia and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's
Philosophie Zoologique of 1809. The idea was popularised in the
Anglophone world by the speculative but widely read Vestiges of the
Natural History of Creation, published anonymously by Robert Chambers
With Darwin's theory, a general acceptance quickly appeared that a
classification should reflect the Darwinian principle of common
descent. Tree of life representations became popular in scientific
works, with known fossil groups incorporated. One of the first modern
groups tied to fossil ancestors was birds. Using the then newly
discovered fossils of
Archaeopteryx and Hesperornis, Thomas Henry
Huxley pronounced that they had evolved from dinosaurs, a group
formally named by
Richard Owen in 1842. The resulting
description, that of dinosaurs "giving rise to" or being "the
ancestors of" birds, is the essential hallmark of evolutionary
taxonomic thinking. As more and more fossil groups were found and
recognized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, palaeontologists
worked to understand the history of animals through the ages by
linking together known groups. With the modern evolutionary
synthesis of the early 1940s, an essentially modern understanding of
the evolution of the major groups was in place. As evolutionary
taxonomy is based on Linnaean taxonomic ranks, the two terms are
largely interchangeable in modern use.
The cladistic method has emerged since the 1960s. In 1958, Julian
Huxley used the term clade. Later, in 1960, Cain and Harrison
introduced the term cladistic. The salient feature is arranging
taxa in a hierarchical evolutionary tree, ignoring ranks. A taxon
is called monophyletic, if it includes all the descendants of an
ancestral form. Groups that have descendant groups removed
from them (e.g. dinosaurs, with birds as offspring group) are termed
paraphyletic, while groups representing more than one branch from
the tree of life are called polyphyletic. The International
Code of Phylogenetic
PhyloCode is intended to regulate
the formal naming of clades. Linnaean ranks will be optional
under the PhyloCode, which is intended to coexist with the current,
Kingdoms and domains
The basic scheme of modern classification. Many other levels can be
used; domain, the highest level within life, is both new and disputed.
Main article: Kingdom (biology)
Well before Linnaeus, plants and animals were considered separate
Kingdoms. Linnaeus used this as the top rank, dividing the
physical world into the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms. As
advances in microscopy made classification of microorganisms possible,
the number of kingdoms increased, five and six-kingdom systems being
the most common.
Domains are a relatively new grouping. First proposed in 1977, Carl
Woese's three-domain system was not generally accepted until
later. One main characteristic of the three-domain method is the
Archaea and Bacteria, previously grouped into the single
Bacteria (a kingdom also sometimes called Monera), with
Eukaryota for all organisms whose cells contain a nucleus. A
small number of scientists include a sixth kingdom, Archaea, but do
not accept the domain method.
Thomas Cavalier-Smith, who has published extensively on the
classification of protists, has recently proposed that the Neomura,
the clade that groups together the
Archaea and Eucarya, would have
evolved from Bacteria, more precisely from Actinobacteria. His 2004
classification treated the archaeobacteria as part of a subkingdom of
the Kingdom Bacteria, i.e. he rejected the three-domain system
entirely. Stefan Luketa in 2012 proposed a five "dominion" system,
adding Prionobiota (acellular and without nucleic acid) and
Virusobiota (acellular but with nucleic acid) to the traditional three
Woese et al.
Kingdom (biology) § Summary
Recent comprehensive classifications
Partial classifications exist for many individual groups of organisms
and are revised and replaced as new information becomes available,
however comprehensive treatments of most or all life are rarer; two
recent examples are that of Adl et al., 2012, which covers
eukaryotes only with an emphasis on protists, and Ruggiero et al.,
2015, covering both eukaryotes and prokaryotes to the rank of
Order, although both exclude fossil representatives.
Biological taxonomy is a sub-discipline of biology, and is generally
practiced by biologists known as "taxonomists", though enthusiastic
naturalists are also frequently involved in the publication of new
taxa. Because taxonomy aims to describe and organize
life, the work conducted by taxonomists is essential for the study of
biodiversity and the resulting field of conservation biology.
Main article: Taxonomic rank
Biological classification is a critical component of the taxonomic
process. As a result, it informs the user as to what the relatives of
the taxon are hypothesized to be. Biological classification uses
taxonomic ranks, including among others (in order from most inclusive
to least inclusive): Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family,
Genus, and Species.[Note 1]
Type specimen for Nepenthes smilesii, a tropical pitcher plant.
The "definition" of a taxon is encapsulated by its description or its
diagnosis or by both combined. There are no set rules governing the
definition of taxa, but the naming and publication of new taxa is
governed by sets of rules. In zoology, the nomenclature for the
more commonly used ranks (superfamily to subspecies), is regulated by
the International Code of Zoological
Nomenclature (ICZN Code). In
the fields of botany, phycology, and mycology, the naming of taxa is
governed by the International Code of
Nomenclature for algae, fungi,
and plants (ICN).
The initial description of a taxon involves five main
The taxon must be given a name based on the 26 letters of the Latin
alphabet (a binomial for new species, or uninomial for other ranks).
The name must be unique (i.e. not a homonym).
The description must be based on at least one name-bearing type
It should include statements about appropriate attributes either to
describe (define) the taxon or to differentiate it from other taxa
(the diagnosis, ICZN Code, Article 13.1.1, ICN, Article 38). Both
codes deliberately separate defining the content of a taxon (its
circumscription) from defining its name.
These first four requirements must be published in a work that is
obtainable in numerous identical copies, as a permanent scientific
However, often much more information is included, like the geographic
range of the taxon, ecological notes, chemistry, behavior, etc. How
researchers arrive at their taxa varies: depending on the available
data, and resources, methods vary from simple quantitative or
qualitative comparisons of striking features, to elaborate computer
analyses of large amounts of
DNA sequence data.
Author citation (botany) and Author citation (zoology)
An "authority" may be placed after a scientific name. The
authority is the name of the scientist or scientists who first validly
published the name. For example, in 1758 Linnaeus gave the Asian
elephant the scientific name Elephas maximus, so the name is sometimes
written as "Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758". The names of authors
are frequently abbreviated: the abbreviation L., for Linnaeus, is
commonly used. In botany, there is, in fact, a regulated list of
standard abbreviations (see list of botanists by author
abbreviation). The system for assigning authorities differs
slightly between botany and zoology. However, it is standard that
if a species' name or placement has been changed since the original
description, the original authority's name is placed in
Main article: Phenetics
In phenetics, also known as taximetrics, or numerical taxonomy,
organisms are classified based on overall similarity, regardless of
their phylogeny or evolutionary relationships. It results in a
measure of evolutionary "distance" between taxa. Phenetic methods have
become relatively rare in modern times, largely superseded by
cladistic analyses, as phenetic methods do not distinguish
plesiomorphic[clarification needed] from apomorphic traits.
However, certain phenetic methods, such as neighbor joining, have
found their way into cladistics, as a reasonable approximation of
phylogeny when more advanced methods (such as Bayesian inference) are
too computationally expensive.
Main article: Taxonomic database
Modern taxonomy uses database technologies to search and catalogue
classifications and their documentation. While there is no
commonly used database, there are comprehensive databases such as the
Catalogue of Life, which attempts to list every documented
species. The catalogue listed 1.64 million species for all
kingdoms as of April 2016, claiming coverage of more than three
quarters of the estimated species known to modern science.
Automated species identification
Consortium for the Barcode of Life
Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities
Glossary of scientific naming
Incertae sedis, or "of uncertain placement", a term used for a
taxonomic group where its broader relationships are unknown or
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What is taxonomy? at the Natural History Museum London
Taxonomy at NCBI the National Center for Biotechnology Information
Taxonomy at UniProt the Universal Protein Resource
ITIS the Integrated Taxonomic Information System
CETaF the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities