Taxon Classification Definition Essay

Taxonomy -- from Greek taxis, meaning arrangement or division, and nomos, meaning law -- is the science of classification according to a predetermined system, with the resulting catalog used to provide a conceptual framework for discussion, analysis or information retrieval. In theory, the development of a good taxonomic classification takes into account the importance of separating elements of a group (taxon) into subgroups (taxa) that are mutually exclusive and unambiguous, and taken together, include all possibilities. In practice, a good taxonomy should be simple, easy to remember and easy to use.

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One of the best-known taxonomies is the one devised by the Swedish scientist, Carl Linnaeus, whose classification for biology is still widely used -- with modifications. In web portal design, taxonomies are often created to describe categories and subcategories of topics found on the website. The categorization of words on WhatIs is similar to any web portal taxonomy.



Taxonomy is the area of the biological sciences devoted to the identification, naming, and classification of living things according to apparent common characteristics. It is far from a simple subject, particularly owing to many disputes over the rules for classifying plants and animals. In terms of real-life application, taxonomy, on the one hand, is related to the entire world of life on Earth, but on the other hand, it might seem an ivory-tower discipline that it has nothing to do with the lives of ordinary people. Nonetheless, to understand the very science of life, which is biology, it is essential to understand taxonomy. Each discipline has its own form of taxonomy: people cannot really grasp politics, for instance, without knowing such basics of political classification as the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy or a representative government and one with an absolute ruler. In the biological sciences, before one can begin to appreciate the many varieties of organisms on Earth, it is essential to comprehend the fundamental ideas about how those organisms are related—or, in areas of dispute, may be related—to one another.



The term taxonomy is actually just one of several related words describing various aspects of classification in the biological sciences. In keeping with the spirit of order and intellectual tidiness that governs all efforts to classify, let us start with the most general concept, which happens to be classification itself. Classification is a very broad term, with applications far beyond the biological sciences, that simply refers to the act of systematically arranging ideas or objects into categories according to specific criteria.

While its meaning is narrower than that of classification, even taxonomy still has broader applications than the way in which it is used in the biological sciences. In a general sense, taxonomy refers to the study of classification or to methods of classification—for example, "political taxonomy," as we used it in the introduction to this essay. Literary critics sometimes refer to a writer's taxonomy of characters. Within the biological sciences, however, the term designates specifically a subdiscipline involving the process and study of the identification, naming, and classification of organisms according to apparent common characteristics.


Two other terms that one is likely to run across in the study of taxonomy are phylogeny and nomenclature. Phylogeny is the evolutionary history of organisms, particularly as that history refers to the relationships between life-forms and the broad lines of descent that unite them. Taxonomy is less fundamental a concept than phylogeny. Whereas taxonomy is a human effort to give order to all the data, phylogeny is the true evolutionary relationship between living organisms. Some scientists call phylogeny the tree of life, meaning that it represents the underlying hierarchical structure by which life-forms evolved and are related to one another.

The word naming was used earlier in the definition of taxonomy because it is a familiar, easily understandable word. However, a more accurate term, and one that helps illuminate the distinction between taxonomy and systematics, is


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nomenclature. The latter can be defined as the act or process of naming as a well as a system of names, particularly one used in a specific science or discipline.


Before going on to discuss methods of classification, it is important to note just which characteristics of an organism's morphological aspect (i.e., structure or form) are important to scientists working in the field of taxonomy. In theorizing relationships between species, taxonomists are not interested in what are known as analogous features, those characteristics that are superficially similar but not as a result of any common evolutionary origin. Rather, they are interested in homologous features, or features that have a common evolutionary origin, even though they may differ in terms of morphological form.

One example of a shared evolutionary characteristic, discussed briefly in the essay Evolution, is the pentadactyl limb, a five-digit appendage common to mammals and found, in modified form, among birds. This is a homologous feature, indicating a common ancestor that likewise had limbs with five digits at the end. By contrast, there is no indication of a close evolutionary relationship in the fact that birds, butterflies, and bats all have wings that are similar in shape. Rather, the laws of physics require that a wing be of a certain shape in order to hold an object aloft, which is why the contour of an airplane wing, when viewed from the side, is remarkably like that of a bird's wing where it joins the animal's body.


Cladistics is a system of taxonomy that distinguishes taxonomic groups or entities on the basis of shared derived characteristics, hypothesizing evolutionary relationships to arrange them in a tree like, branching hierarchy. The expression derived characteristics in this definition means that the characteristics that unite two types of organism are not necessarily present in a shared evolutionary ancestor. Rather, they have developed over the course of evolutionary history since the time of that shared ancestor.

In explaining cladistics to the ordinary human being, the vast majority of science writers seem to be at a loss as to how to make the topic comprehensible. Thus, such terms as derived characteristics and its opposite, primitive characteristics, usually are left undefined. A welcome exception is Paul Willis, who, in an on-line article for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (see Where to Learn More) gave a wonderful illustration that was an attempt to analyze the relationships between a mouse, a lizard, and a fish.

"They've all got backbones," Willis wrote," so the feature 'backbone' is useless [as an indication of evolutionary branching]; it's a 'primitive' character that tells you nothing. But the [derived] feature 'four legs' is useful because it's an evolutionary novelty shared only between the lizard and the mouse. This implies that the lizard and mouse are more closely related to each other than either is to the fish. Put another way, the lizard and the mouse share a common ancestor that had four legs." Willis went on to note that "the more evolutionary novelties we can find that support a particular relationship, the greater our confidence that the relationship is correct. 'Air breathing,' 'neck' and 'amniotic egg' are another three evolutionary novelties that tie the lizard and the mouse together and leave the fish as a more distant relative."


Cladistics, the most widely applied approach to taxonomy, has undergone considerable change since it was introduced by the German zoologist Willi Hennig (1913-1976) in the 1950s. Particularly important has been the marriage of cladistics with another taxonomic idea born in the mid-twentieth century, phenetics, or numerical taxonomy. Introduced by the Austrian biologist Robert Reuven Sokal (1926-) and the English microbiologist Peter Henry Andrews Sneath (1923-), numerical taxonomy is an approach in which specific morphological characteristics of an organism are measured and assigned numerical value, so that similarities between taxa (taxonomic groups or entities) can be compared mathematically. These mathematical comparisons are performed through the use of algorithms, or specific step-by-step mathematical procedures for computing the answer to a particular problem. The aim of numerical taxonomy is to remove all subjectivity (such as the taxonomist's "intuition") from the process of classification. Initially, many traditional taxonomists rejected numerical taxonomy, because its results sometimes contradicted their own decades-long studies of comparative morphological features. Nearly all modern taxonomists apply numerical methods in taxonomy, although there is often heated debate as to which particular algorithms should be used.


Earlier, taxonomy was defined in terms of its relationship to the identification, classification, and nomenclature of taxa. Let us now briefly consider each in turn, with the understanding that they are exceedingly complex, technical subjects that can be treated here in the most cursory fashion. The process of identification is a particularly complex one. When an apparently new taxon is discovered, a taxonomist prepares an organized written description of the characteristics of similar species, which are referred to as a taxonomic key. Instead of using pictures, which often poorly convey the natural variations in morphological features, taxonomists prefer to use a taxonomic key in written form, which provides much more detail and exactitude.

To put it in colloquial terms, by referring to a taxonomic key, a taxonomist may determine that if an organism "looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck"—only, in this instance, the taxa being compared are much more specific than the common term duck and the characteristics much more precisely described. (For one thing, there are several dozen species in the genus Anas, which includes all "proper" ducks, and many more species in the family Anatidae, or waterfowl, that are commonly called by "duck names"—including such amusingly named species as the ruddy duck, lack duck, freckled duck, and comb duck.) If there is no already established "duck" that the species in question resembles, the taxonomist may have discovered an entirely new genus, family, order, class, or even phylum.

A taxonomist may use what is called a dichotomous key, which presents series of alternatives much like a flow chart. For example, if the flowers of a sample in question are white and the stem is woody, then (depending on additional alternatives) it could be either species A or species B. If the flowers are not white and the stem is herbaceous (non-woody), then, presented with another set of additional alternatives, it is possible that the plant is either species C or species D.


In discussing cladistics and phenetics, we touched briefly on the process of classification. Suffice it to say that this process is far more complex and technically elaborate than these few paragraphs can begin to suggest. We return later to specifics of classification as they relate to systems and innovations introduced by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), and the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the three most important men in the history of taxonomy before the twentieth century. For the present, our focus is on the overall ranking system.

There are many possible ranks of classification but only seven that are part of what is known as the obligatory taxonomy, or obligatory hierarchy. These ranks are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Listed here are all possible ranks, with obligatory ranks in italics.

  • Kingdom
  • Subkingdom
  • Phylum
  • Subphylum
  • Superclass
  • Class
  • Subclass
  • Infraclass
  • Cohort
  • Superorder
  • Order
  • Suborder
  • Superfamily
  • Family
  • Subfamily
  • Tribe
  • Genus
  • Subgenus
  • Species
  • Subspecies

The reader occasionally may come across nonobligatory ranks, most notably subphylum, but for the most part the only ranks referred to in this book are the obligatory ones.


In accordance with a tradition established by Linnaeus, all group names are in Latin, thus facilitating ease of communication. There are some rules concerning names of groups: for instance, those of families use the suffix-idae. In the world of taxonomy, however, few rules are accepted universally. Even as basic a term as phylum is not universal, since botanists prefer the word division.

The proper name of any ranking more general than species is capitalized (e.g., phylum Chordata), with species and subspecies names in lowercase. Genus, species, and subspecies names are rendered in italics (e.g., Homo sapiens, or "man the wise"), while proper names of the more general groupings are presented in ordinary type (e.g., class Mammalia). If the same name appears a second time in the same article, the genus name usually is abbreviated: thus, H. sapiens.

Just as most people (with such rare exceptions as Cher and Madonna) are identified by two names, a personal and a family name, taxonomy makes use of a system called binomial nomenclature, in which each type of plant or animal is given a two-word name, with the first name identifying the genus and the second the species. In binomial nomenclature, the genus name is analogous to the family name, inasmuch as there are many species within a genus, and the species name is like a personal name. The difference is that whereas there may be thousands of boys and men named John Smith, there is only one species called Homo sapiens. Beyond the species name, there may be subspecies names: humans are subspecies sapiens, so our full species name with subspecies is Homo sapiens sapiens. Additional rules govern the inclusion of a name or an abbreviation, at the end of the species or subspecies name, to recognize the individual who first identified it.



One might ask what all the fuss is about. Why is classification so important? We attempt to answer that question from a few angles, including a brief look at the lengthy historical quest to develop a workable taxonomic system. But what was the original impulse that motivated that quest? One clue can be found in the Greek roots of the word taxonomy: taxis, or "arrangement," and nomos, or "law." The search for a taxonomic system represents humankind's desire to make order out of the complexities with which nature presents us. When it comes to the organization of ideas (including ideas about the varieties of life-forms), this desire for order is more than a mere preference. It is a necessity.


Imagine a library without any organizational system, with books simply crammed willy-nilly on the shelves. Such a place would be totally chaotic, and if one happened to find a book one was looking for, it would be a case of pure luck. The odds would be weighted heavily against such luck, especially in a university library or a large municipal or regional one. Just as a good-size university library has upward of a million volumes, and many large university libraries have several million, so there are at least a couple of million identified species, and the total may be much larger. Some entomologists (scientists who study insects) speculate that there may be ten million species of insect alone.


When a zoologist or botanist discovers what he or she believes to be a new species, the taxonomic system provides a standard against which to check it—rather as you would do if you thought you had discovered a book that was not in the library. If the "new" species matches an established one, that may be the end of the story—unless the scientist has discovered a new aspect of the species or a new subspecies. And if there is no match in the taxonomic "library," the scientist has discovered an entirely new life-form, with all the grand and terrifying ramifications that may ensue.

The new species might be an herb from which a cure can be synthesized for a devastating disease, or it could be a parasite that carries a new and previously unknown malady. Whatever it is, it is better to know about it than not to know, and though the vast majority of "new" species are not nearly as exciting as the preceding paragraph would imply, each has its part to play in the overall balance of life. Discovery of new species is particularly important when those species are endangered or might be in the process of disappearing even as they are identified.


Without knowing anything about scientific taxonomy, almost anyone can begin to classify animals and perhaps plants. If we limit the discussion purely to animals, there are many basic parameters according to which we could classify them, just off the tops of our heads, as it were. For example, there are aquatic and terrestrial animals, and these general groupings can be broken down further according to biome or habitat (see Biomes). There are animals that walk, fly, swim, slither, or move by some other means. Animals can be divided according to their forms of reproduction, whether asexual or sexual, oviparous or viviparous (expelling or retaining a fertilized egg, respectively), and so on. As discussed in Food Webs, animals may be classified as herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, or detritivores or as primary, secondary, or tertiary consumers. They may be endothermic or ectothermic (warm-blooded or cold-blooded), and they may be covered with scales, feathers, fur, or skin. (In the last case, that skin may be protected by either mucus or hair.)

On and on go the categories, and if one is inclined toward a classifying mind, this kind of mental exercise can be fun. Certainly, little children enjoy it, and many educational programs and games call on the child to group animals thus. Although these kinds of groupings, and the efforts to place animals into one group or another, constitute a form of classification, there is a great difference between this and scientific taxonomy.


Taxonomy is tied closely to evolutionary study, and Darwin's theory of evolution was a turning point in the history of scientific classification. Thus, taxonomists are concerned more with the evolutionary patterns that link organisms than they are with what may be only superficial similarities. Habitat, for instance, is significant in studying biomes, but it seldom plays a role in taxonomy. Nor is the ability to fly, as we have noted, necessarily an indicator of taxonomic similarities.

A striking example of the difference between scientific taxonomy and "common sense" classification is the fact that whales and dolphins are grouped along with other mammals (class Mammalia) rather than with fish and other creatures that most readily come to mind when thinking of aquatic organisms. In fact, whales and dolphins share not only a wide array of primitive characteristics with mammals (for example, the pentadactyl limb described earlier) but also the derived characteristic that defines mammal : the secreting of milk from mammary glands, by which a mother feeds her young. Not only is it impossible to get milk from a fish (even family Chanidae, known by the common name "milkfish"), but fish lack even that primitive characteristic, the pentadactyl limb, that links mammals, at least distantly, with nonmammalian creatures, such as birds (class Aves).


For the sake of convenience, in many places throughout this book, common terms such as bird, horse, fish, and so forth are used. But common terms are far from adequate in a scientific context, because such terminology can be deceptive, as exemplified by the nonduck "ducks" mentioned earlier. Likewise, shellfish and starfish are not "fish" as that term is usually understood. But while common terminology can be misleading, sometimes correlations with scientific taxonomy can be found in what is known as folk taxonomy. The latter is a term for the taxonomic systems applied in relatively isolated non-Western societies. For example, the folk taxonomy of native peoples in New Guinea identified 136 bird species in the mountains of that island, a figure that came amazingly close to the 137 species identified by the German-born


© Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis

. Reproduced by permission.)
American evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-) when he studied New Guinea's birds using scientific methods.


Among his many other accomplishments as a thinker, Aristotle is regarded as the father of the biological sciences and of taxonomy. Among the dominant ideas in his work as a philosopher are the concepts of hierarchy and classification, and thus he took readily to the idea of classifying things. At his school in Athens, he put his students to work on all sorts of taxonomic pursuits, from listing the champions at the Pythian Games (a festival like the Olympics) to classifying the constitutions of various Greek city-states to analyzing the body parts of animals. Aristotle himself dissected hundreds of animals to understand what made them tick, and he proved to be some 2,000 years ahead of his time in recognizing that the dolphin is a mammal and not a fish. His system of classification, however, was a far cry from the ideas that developed in nineteenth-century taxonomy; rather than searching for evolutionary lines of descent, he ranked animals in order of their physical complexity.

In most aspects of his other work, Aristotle established sharp distinctions between his own ideas and those of his teacher, Plato (427?-347 B.C.). For example, Aristotle rejected Plato's position that every idea we can conceive is but a dim reflection of an essential concept—for example, that our idea of "red" is only a shadowy copy of the perfect notion of "redness." Yet in his taxonomy, Aristotle seemed to hark back to his days as Plato's star pupil. The Aristotelian principles of classification were governed by the idea that there are constant, unchanging "essences" that unite classes of organisms. This idea of essences is completely at odds with the empirical (experience-based) mentality that governs taxonomy today. Nonetheless, for two millennia, Aristotelian ideas represented the cutting edge in taxonomy and much else.


After Aristotle and his brilliant student Theophrastus (371?-287? B.C.), the father of botany, there would be no Western biological theorists of remotely comparable stature until the time of the Renaissance. In the meantime, taxonomy, as with so many other areas of learning in Europe, declined badly. During the Middle Ages, what passed for taxonomic writings consisted primarily of bestiaries, books full of fanciful and imaginary creatures, such as the unicorn. The first signs of scientific reawakening in the biological sciences in general, and taxonomy in particular, came with plant and animal catalogues by such great medieval scholars as Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200-1280). Even so, their work consisted primarily of summations of existing Aristotelian knowledge rather than new contributions.

In the sixteenth century, the Swiss scientist Konrad von Gessner (1516-1565) wrote Historia animalium (1551-1558), a groundbreaking work that included descriptions of many animals never before seen by most Europeans. Gesner also denounced the practice of including fictitious animals in bestiaries. Around the same time, the discoveries of new plant and animal species in the New World began to point up the need for a taxonomy that went beyond Aristotle's. The first scholar of the modern era to attack this problem was the Italian botanist Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), but nearly two centuries would pass before the development of a workable classification system.


The man who revolutionized taxonomy was born Carl von Linné but adopted the Latinized name Carolus Linnaeus. Even that late in scientific history, scholars still wrote chiefly in Latin, not because they were trying to adhere to tradition but because it remained a common language between educated people of different countries. Thus, Linnaeus's great work, which he first published in 1737 but revised numerous times, was named Systema naturae, or "The Natural System." Thanks to Linnaeus, Latin became enshrined permanently as the language of taxonomy the world over, but this was far from his only accomplishment.

It was Linnaeus who introduced binomial nomenclature, in a 1758 revision of his Systema, and also Linnaeus who established several of the obligatory rankings. Moreover, he instituted the first taxonomic keys, and his system, first applied in botany, became accepted in the zoological community as well. Others, including Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Michel Adanson (1727-1806), and Comte Georges Buffon (1707-1788), refined Linnaeus's system, but he stands as a towering figure in the discipline.

Later, the French natural philosopher Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829) proposed a distinction between vertebrates, or animals with spinal columns, and invertebrates. Today this distinction is not considered as useful as it once was, since it is lopsided—that is, there are nine times as many invertebrates as vertebrates in the animal kingdom—but at the time, it represented an advancement. Less questionable were the distinctions introduced in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) between plants, animals, and single-cell organisms. As Haeckel reasoned, at the level of unicellular organisms, distinctions between plant and animal really make no sense.


By far the most influential figure in taxonomy during the nineteenth century was the man also recognized as the most influential figure in all of biology during that era: Darwin. Whereas Linnaeus had retained the Aristotelian focus on the "essence" of the animal's features, Darwin swept away such notions and, in his Origin of Species (1859), proposed that the "community of descent" is "the one known cause of close similarity in organic beings" and therefore the only reasonable basis for taxonomic classification systems. As result of Darwin's work, taxonomists became much more oriented toward the representation of phylogeny in their classification systems. Therefore, instead of simply naming and cataloguing species, modern taxonomists also try to construct evolutionary trees showing the relationships between different species.

Since Darwin's time, taxonomy has seen numerous innovations, including the introduction of cladistics by Hennig and of numerical taxonomy by Sokal and Sneath. Taxonomists today make use of something unknown at the time of Darwin: DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule that contains genetic codes for inheritance), which provides a wealth of evidence showing relationships between creatures. For example, a comparison of human and chimpanzee DNA reveals that we share more than 98% of the same genetic material, indicating that the two lines of descent are related more closely than either is to apes.


There are several taxonomic systems, distinguished in part by the number of different kingdoms that each system recognizes. The system used in this book is that of five kingdoms, listed here, which is the result of modifications by the American biologists Lynn Margulis (1938-) and Karlene V. Schwartz (1936-) to the work of earlier taxonomists. (It should be noted that biologists are increasingly using a system of six kingdoms under three domains: eubacteria, arachaea, and eukaryotes. For the sake of simplicity, however, the five-kingdom system is used here.) These five kingdoms are as follows:

Monera : bacteria, blue-green algae, and spirochetes (spiral-shaped, undulating bacteria). Members of this kingdom, consisting of some 10,000 or more known species, are single-cell prokaryotes, meaning that the cell has no distinct nucleus. Some researchers have divided Monera into Eubacteria, or "true" bacteria, and Archae-bacteria, which are bacteria-like organisms capable of living in extremely harsh and sometimes anaerobic (oxygen-lacking) environments, such as in acids, saltwater, or sewage.

Protista (or Protoctista) : protozoans, slime molds (which resemble fungi), and algae other than the blue-green variety. Made up of more than 250,000 species, this kingdom is distinguished by the fact that its members are single-cell organisms, like the Monera. These organisms, however, are eukaryotes, or cells with a nucleus as well as organelles (sections of the cell that perform specific functions).

Fungi : fungi, molds, mushrooms, yeasts, mildews, and smuts (a type of fungus that afflicts certain plants). Fungi are multicellular, consisting of specialized eukaryotic cells arranged in a filamentous form (that is, a long, thin series of cells attached either to one another or to a long, thin cylindrical cell). There are some 100,000 varieties of fungi.

Plantae : plants, of which there are upward of 250,000 species. Although plant is a common term, there is no universally accepted definition that includes all plants and excludes all nonplants. One of the most important characteristics of plants is the fact that they receive their nutrition almost purely through photosynthesis. Beyond the plant kingdom, this is true only of a few protests and bacteria. (For the most part, the three lower kingdoms obtain nutrition through absorption.) Other characteristics of plants include the fact that they are incapable of locomotion; have cells that contain a form of carbohydrate called cellulose, making their cell walls more or less rigid; are capable of nearly unlimited growth at certain localized regions (unlike most animals, which have set numbers of limbs and so forth); and have no sensory or nervous system.

Animalia : animals, of which there are more than 1,000,000 species. Like plants, animals are characterized by specialized eukaryotic cells, but also like plants, the comprehensive definition of animal is not as obvious as one might imagine. Mobility, or a means of locomotion, is not a defining characteristic, since sponges and corals are considered animals. The principal difference between animals and plants is at the cellular level: animals either lack cells walls entirely or have highly permeable walls, unlike the cellulose cell walls in plants. Another defining characteristic of animal is that they obtain nutrition by feeding on other organisms. Additionally, animals usually have more or less fixed morphological characteristics and possess a nervous system. The fact that most animals are mobile helps account for the large number of animal species compared with those of other kingdoms; over the course of evolutionary history, mobility brought about the introduction of animals to a wide range of environments, which required a wide range of adaptations.


© Jeffrey L. Rotman/Corbis

. Reproduced by permission.)

Space does not permit a discussion of the various phyla, let alone the smaller divisions, inanything like the detail we have accorded to kingdoms. Furthermore, the distinctions among most phyla, apart from higher animals and some plants, makes for rather dry reading to a nonscientist. These divisions are discussed in furtherdetail, however, within the essays Species and Speciation. The latter essays also address the definition of species, a great and continuing challenge that faces taxonomists.


Two stories reported in National Geographic News online (see "Where to Learn More") in 2001 and 2002 illustrate the fact that scientific classification is an ongoing process, and that the world of taxonomy is frequently home to controversies and surprises. Lee R. Berger of the Geographic reported the first story, on December 17, 2001, under the heading "How Do You Miss a Whole Elephant Species?" As it turns out, there are not just two species of elephant, as had long been believed, but three.

In addition to the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) scientists had long recognized the African savanna elephant, or Loxodonta africana, as a second species. However, DNA testing (see Genetics and Genetic Engineering) in 2001 revealed a second African variety, Loxodonta cyclotisare or the African forest elephant, formerly believed to constitute merely a subspecies.

The news was not entirely new: as early as a century prior to the announcement of the "new" species, zoologists had begun to suspect that the forest elephant was a separate grouping distinguished by a number of characteristics. For example, the forest elephant is physically smaller, with males seldom measuring more than 8 ft. (2.5 m) at the shoulder, as compared to 13 ft. (4 m) for a large savanna male. Additionally, ivory samples confiscated from poachers or illegal hunters have revealed that the material in the tusks of the forest variety is pinker and harder than that of its savanna counterpart.

Recognition of the third elephant species followed years of argument as to whether the two African varieties are capable of interbreeding, which would indicate that they are not separate species. That debate was rendered moot by the DNA studies, which showed that the African forest and savanna elephants are less closely related genetically than are lions and tigers, or horses and zebras.


The identification of the forest elephant in 2001 was a major taxonomic event, inasmuch as the elephant itself is a large and commonly known creature. However, it was still a matter only of identifying a new species, whereas in 2002, for the first time in 87 years, taxonomists identified an entirely new insect order. Actually, the order consists of a single known species, but this one is so different from others that it must be grouped separately. Discovered in Namibia, in southwestern Africa, the creature was given the nickname "the gladiator" in honor of the Academy Award-winning 2000 film of that name.

Entomologist Oliver Zompro of the Max Planck Institute of Limnology in Plön, Germany, described the creature as "a cross between a stick insect, a mantid, and a grasshopper," according to the Geographic. Because its first body segment is the largest, it is distinguished from a stick insect, whereas it differs from a mantid inasmuch as it uses both fore and mid-legs to capture prey. And while it looks like a grasshopper, "the gladiator" cannot jump.

Measuring as much as 1.6 in. (4 cm) long, the insect, whose order is designated as Mantophasmatodea, is a carnivorous, nocturnal creature. Its discovery raised the number of known insect orders to 31, a discovery that Piotr Naskrecki, director of the Conservation International Invertebrate Diversity Initiative, compared to finding a mastodon or saber-toothed tiger. Colorado State University ecologist Diana Wall described the discovery as "tremendously exciting" and told the Geographic, "This new order could be a missing link to determining relationships between insects and other groups. … Every textbook discussing the orders of insects will now need to be rewritten."


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Margulis, Lynn, and Karlene V. Schwartz. Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1988.

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A specific set of step-by-step procedures for computing answers toa mathematical problem.


Morphological characteristics of two or more taxathat are superficially similar but not as a result of any common evolutionary origin. For example, birds, bats, and butterflies all have wings, but this is not because they are closely related. Compare with homologous features.


A system of nomenclature in biological taxonomy whereby each type of plant or animal is given a two-word name, with the first name identifying the genus and the second the species. Genus name is always capitalized and abbreviated after the firstuse, and species name is lowercased. Both are always shown in italics; thus, Homo sapiens and, later in the same document, H. sapiens.


A large ecosystem (community of interdependent organisms and their inorganic environment) characterized by its dominant life-forms. There are two basic varieties of biome: terrestrial, or land-based, and aquatic.


A system of taxonomy that distinguishes taxonomic groups or entities (i.e., taxa) on the basis of shared derived characteristics, hypothesizing evolutionary relationships to arrange these in a tree like, branching hierarchy. Cladistics is one of several competing approaches to taxonomic study.


The third most general obligatory of the taxonomic classification ranks, after phylum but before order.


A very broadterm, with application far beyond the biological sciences, that refers to the act of systematically arranging ideas or objects into categories according to specific criteria. A more specific term is taxonomy.


A cell that has a nucleus as well as organelles (sections of the cell that perform specific functions) bound bymembranes.


The third most specific of the seven obligatory ranks in taxonomy, after order but before genus.


One of the five kingdoms of living things, consisting of multicellulareukaryotic cells arranged in a filamentous form (that is, a long, thin series of cells attached either to one another or to a long, thin cylindrical cell.) Fungi include "true" fungi, molds, mushrooms, yeasts, mildews, and smuts (a type of fungus that afflicts certain plants).


The second most specific of the obligatory ranks in taxonomy, after family but before species.


Morphological characteristics of two or more taxa that indicate a common evolutionaryorigin, even though the organisms may differ in terms of other morphological features. An example is the pentadactyl limb, common to many birds and most mammals (e.g., the human's four fingers and thumb), which indicates a common ancestor. Compare with analogous features.


The highest or most general ranking in the obligatory taxonomic system. In the system used in this book, there are five kingdoms: Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia.


One of the five kingdoms of living things, consisting of single-cell prokaryotes, including bacteria, blue-greenalgae, and spirochetes (spiral-shapedundulating bacteria that may cause such diseases as syphilis).


Structure or form, or the study thereof.


The act or process of naming, or a system of names—particularly one used in a specific science or discipline. See also binomial nomenclature.


Anapproach to taxonomy in which specific morphological characteristics of an organism are measured and assigned numerical value, so that similarities between two types of organism can be compared mathematically by means of an algorithm. Numerical taxonomy also is called phenetics.


The seven taxonomic ranks by which all species must be identified, whether or not they also are identified according to nonobligatory categories, such as subphylum, cohort, or tribe. These ranks are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.


The middle of the seven obligatory ranks in taxonomy, more specific than class but more general than family.


Another name for numerical taxonomy.


The biological conversion of light energy (that is, electromagnetic energy) from the Sun to chemical energy in plants. In this process carbondioxide and water are converted to sugars.


The evolutionary history of organisms, particularly as that history refers to the relationships between life-forms, and the broad lines of descent that unite them.


The second most general of the obligatory taxonomic classificationranks, after kingdom and before class.


A cell without a nucleus.


One of the five kingdoms of living things, consisting of single-cell eukaryotes. Protista include protozoans, slime molds (which resemble fungi), and algae otherthan the blue-green variety.


The most specific of the seven obligatory ranks in taxonomy.


The science of classifying and studying organisms with regard to their natural relationships.


A taxonomic group or entity.


The area of the biological sciences devoted to the identification, nomenclature, and classification of organisms according to apparent common characteristics. The word taxonomy also can be used more generally to refer to the study of classification or to methods of classification (e.g., "the taxonomy of Dickens's characters.")

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