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African elephants form the genus Loxodonta, a widely accepted taxon. Elephants in Kenya.jpg
African elephants form the genus Loxodonta, a widely accepted taxon.

In biology, a taxon (back-formation from taxonomy ; pl.: taxa) is a group of one or more populations of an organism or organisms seen by taxonomists to form a unit. Although neither is required, a taxon is usually known by a particular name and given a particular ranking, especially if and when it is accepted or becomes established. It is very common, however, for taxonomists to remain at odds over what belongs to a taxon and the criteria used for inclusion, especially in the context of rank-based ("Linnaean") nomenclature (much less so under phylogenetic nomenclature). [1] If a taxon is given a formal scientific name, its use is then governed by one of the nomenclature codes specifying which scientific name is correct for a particular grouping.


Initial attempts at classifying and ordering organisms (plants and animals) were presumably set forth long ago by hunter-gatherers, as suggested by the fairly sophisticated folk taxonomies. Much later, Aristotle, and later still, European scientists, like Magnol, [2] Tournefort [3] and Carl Linnaeus's system in Systema Naturae , 10th edition (1758), [4] , as well as an unpublished work by Bernard and Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, contributed to this field. The idea of a unit-based system of biological classification was first made widely available in 1805 in the introduction of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's Flore françoise, and Augustin Pyramus de Candolle's Principes élémentaires de botanique. Lamarck set out a system for the "natural classification" of plants. Since then, systematists continue to construct accurate classifications encompassing the diversity of life; today, a "good" or "useful" taxon is commonly taken to be one that reflects evolutionary relationships. [note 1]

Many modern systematists, such as advocates of phylogenetic nomenclature, use cladistic methods that require taxa to be monophyletic (all descendants of some ancestor). Their basic unit, therefore, the clade is equivalent to the taxon, assuming that taxa should reflect evolutionary relationships. Similarly, among those contemporary taxonomists working with the traditional Linnean (binomial) nomenclature, few propose taxa they know to be paraphyletic. [5] An example of a long-established taxon that is not also a clade is the class Reptilia, the reptiles; birds and mammals are the descendants of animals traditionally classed as reptiles, but neither is included in the Reptilia (birds are traditionally placed in the class Aves, and mammals in the class Mammalia). [6]


The term taxon was first used in 1926 by Adolf Meyer-Abich for animal groups, as a back-formation from the word taxonomy ; the word taxonomy had been coined a century before from the Greek components τάξις (táxis), meaning "arrangement", and νόμος (nómos), meaning "method". [7] [8] For plants, it was proposed by Herman Johannes Lam in 1948, and it was adopted at the VII International Botanical Congress, held in 1950. [9]


The glossary of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (1999) defines [10] a

A taxonomic unit, whether named or not: i.e. a population, or group of populations of organisms which are usually inferred to be phylogenetically related and which have characters in common which differentiate (q.v.) the unit (e.g. a geographic population, a genus, a family, an order) from other such units. A taxon encompasses all included taxa of lower rank (q.v.) and individual organisms. [...]"


The hierarchy of biological classification's eight major taxonomic ranks. Intermediate minor rankings are not shown. Biological classification L Pengo vflip.svg DomainKingdomClassOrderFamily
The hierarchy of biological classification's eight major taxonomic ranks. Intermediate minor rankings are not shown.

A taxon can be assigned a taxonomic rank, usually (but not necessarily) when it is given a formal name.[ citation needed ]

"Phylum" applies formally to any biological domain, but traditionally it was always used for animals, whereas "division" was traditionally often used for plants, fungi, etc.[ citation needed ]

A prefix is used to indicate a ranking of lesser importance. The prefix super- indicates a rank above, the prefix sub- indicates a rank below. In zoology, the prefix infra- indicates a rank below sub-. For instance, among the additional ranks of class are superclass, subclass and infraclass.[ citation needed ]

Rank is relative, and restricted to a particular systematic schema. For example, liverworts have been grouped, in various systems of classification, as a family, order, class, or division (phylum). The use of a narrow set of ranks is challenged by users of cladistics; for example, the mere 10 ranks traditionally used between animal families (governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN)) and animal phyla (usually the highest relevant rank in taxonomic work) often cannot adequately represent the evolutionary history as more about a lineage's phylogeny becomes known.[ citation needed ]

In addition, the class rank is quite often not an evolutionary but a phenetic or paraphyletic group and as opposed to those ranks governed by the ICZN (family-level, genus-level and species-level taxa), can usually not be made monophyletic by exchanging the taxa contained therein. This has given rise to phylogenetic taxonomy and the ongoing development of the PhyloCode , which has been proposed as a new alternative to replace Linnean classification and govern the application of names to clades. Many cladists do not see any need to depart from traditional nomenclature as governed by the ICZN, International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants, etc.[ citation needed ]

See also


  1. This is not considered as mandatory, however, as indicated by terms for non-monophyletic groupings ("invertebrates", "conifers", "fish", etc).

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    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Linnaean taxonomy</span> Rank based classification system for organisms

    Linnaean taxonomy can mean either of two related concepts:

    1. The particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) set up by Carl Linnaeus, as set forth in his Systema Naturae (1735) and subsequent works. In the taxonomy of Linnaeus there are three kingdoms, divided into classes, and the classes divided into lower ranks in a hierarchical order.
    2. A term for rank-based classification of organisms, in general. That is, taxonomy in the traditional sense of the word: rank-based scientific classification. This term is especially used as opposed to cladistic systematics, which groups organisms into clades. It is attributed to Linnaeus, although he neither invented the concept of ranked classification nor gave it its present form. In fact, it does not have an exact present form, as "Linnaean taxonomy" as such does not really exist: it is a collective (abstracting) term for what actually are several separate fields, which use similar approaches.

    In biology, taxonomy is the scientific study of naming, defining (circumscribing) and classifying groups of biological organisms based on shared characteristics. Organisms are grouped into taxa and these groups are given a taxonomic rank; groups of a given rank can be aggregated to form a more inclusive group of higher rank, thus creating a taxonomic hierarchy. The principal ranks in modern use are domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is regarded as the founder of the current system of taxonomy, as he developed a ranked system known as Linnaean taxonomy for categorizing organisms and binomial nomenclature for naming organisms.

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Genus</span> Taxonomic rank directly above species

    Genus is a taxonomic rank used in the biological classification of living and fossil organisms as well as viruses. In the hierarchy of biological classification, genus comes above species and below family. In binomial nomenclature, the genus name forms the first part of the binomial species name for each species within the genus.

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Binomial nomenclature</span> System of identifying species of organisms using a two-part name

    In taxonomy, binomial nomenclature, also called binary nomenclature, is a formal system of naming species of living things by giving each a name composed of two parts, both of which use Latin grammatical forms, although they can be based on words from other languages. Such a name is called a binomial name, a binomen, binominal name, or a scientific name; more informally it is also historically called a Latin name. In the ICZN, the system is also called binominal nomenclature, "binomi'N'al" with an "N" before the "al", which is not a typographic error, meaning "two-name naming system".

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Family (biology)</span> Taxonomic rank between genus and order

    Family is one of the nine major hierarchical taxonomic ranks in Linnaean taxonomy. It is classified between order and genus. A family may be divided into subfamilies, which are intermediate ranks between the ranks of family and genus. The official family names are Latin in origin; however, popular names are often used: for example, walnut trees and hickory trees belong to the family Juglandaceae, but that family is commonly referred to as the "walnut family".

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Class (biology)</span> Taxonomic rank between phylum and order

    In biological classification, class is a taxonomic rank, as well as a taxonomic unit, a taxon, in that rank. It is a group of related taxonomic orders. Other well-known ranks in descending order of size are life, domain, kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, and species, with class ranking between phylum and order.

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Order (biology)</span> Taxonomic rank between class and family

    Order is one of the eight major hierarchical taxonomic ranks in Linnaean taxonomy. It is classified between family and class. In biological classification, the order is a taxonomic rank used in the classification of organisms and recognized by the nomenclature codes. An immediately higher rank, superorder, is sometimes added directly above order, with suborder directly beneath order. An order can also be defined as a group of related families.

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">International Code of Zoological Nomenclature</span> Code of scientific nomenclature for animals

    The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) is a widely accepted convention in zoology that rules the formal scientific naming of organisms treated as animals. It is also informally known as the ICZN Code, for its publisher, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. The rules principally regulate:

    The International Code of Phylogenetic Nomenclature, known as the PhyloCode for short, is a formal set of rules governing phylogenetic nomenclature. Its current version is specifically designed to regulate the naming of clades, leaving the governance of species names up to the rank-based nomenclature codes.

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Type (biology)</span> Specimen(s) to which a scientific name is formally attached

    In biology, a type is a particular specimen of an organism to which the scientific name of that organism is formally associated. In other words, a type is an example that serves to anchor or centralizes the defining features of that particular taxon. In older usage, a type was a taxon rather than a specimen.

    <i>Incertae sedis</i> Term to indicate an uncertain taxonomic position

    Incertae sedis or problematica is a term used for a taxonomic group where its broader relationships are unknown or undefined. Alternatively, such groups are frequently referred to as "enigmatic taxa". In the system of open nomenclature, uncertainty at specific taxonomic levels is indicated by incertae familiae, incerti subordinis, incerti ordinis and similar terms.

    Botanical nomenclature is the formal, scientific naming of plants. It is related to, but distinct from taxonomy. Plant taxonomy is concerned with grouping and classifying plants; botanical nomenclature then provides names for the results of this process. The starting point for modern botanical nomenclature is Linnaeus' Species Plantarum of 1753. Botanical nomenclature is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), which replaces the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). Fossil plants are also covered by the code of nomenclature.

    Nomenclature codes or codes of nomenclature are the various rulebooks that govern the naming of living organisms. Standardizing the scientific names of biological organisms allows researchers to discuss findings.

    In zoological nomenclature, the valid name of a taxon is the correct scientific name for that taxon. The valid name must be used for that taxon, regardless of any other name that may currently be used for that taxon, or may previously have been used. A name can only be valid when it is an available name under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN); if a name is unavailable, then it cannot be considered either valid or invalid.

    In biology, a homonym is a name for a taxon that is identical in spelling to another such name, that belongs to a different taxon.

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Conserved name</span> Conserved name (a protected scientific name)

    A conserved name or nomen conservandum is a scientific name that has specific nomenclatural protection. That is, the name is retained, even though it violates one or more rules which would otherwise prevent it from being legitimate. Nomen conservandum is a Latin term, meaning "a name to be conserved". The terms are often used interchangeably, such as by the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants (ICN), while the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature favours the term "conserved name".

    The Botanical and Zoological Codes of nomenclature treat the concept of synonymy differently.

    Phylogenetic nomenclature is a method of nomenclature for taxa in biology that uses phylogenetic definitions for taxon names as explained below. This contrasts with the traditional method, by which taxon names are defined by a type, which can be a specimen or a taxon of lower rank, and a description in words. Phylogenetic nomenclature is regulated currently by the International Code of Phylogenetic Nomenclature (PhyloCode).

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Taxonomic rank</span> Level in a taxonomic hierarchy

    In biology, taxonomic rank is the relative level of a group of organisms in an ancestral or hereditary hierarchy. A common system of biological classification (taxonomy) consists of species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, and domain. While older approaches to taxonomic classification were phenomenological, forming groups on the basis of similarities in appearance, organic structure and behaviour, methods based on genetic analysis have opened the road to cladistics.

    <span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of scientific naming</span>

    This is a list of terms and symbols used in scientific names for organisms, and in describing the names. For proper parts of the names themselves, see List of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names. Note that many of the abbreviations are used with or without a stop.


    1. Cantino, Philip D.; de Queiroz, Kevin (2000). International Code of Phylogenetic Nomenclature (PhyloCode): A Phylogenetic Code of Biological Nomenclature. Boca Raton, Fl: CRC Press. pp. xl + 149. ISBN   0429821352.
    2. Magnol, Petrus (1689). Prodromus historiae generalis plantarum in quo familiae plantarum per tabulas disponuntur (in Latin). Montpellier: Pech. p. 79.
    3. Tournefort, Joseph Pitton de (1694). Elemens de botanique, ou Methode pour connoître les plantes. I. [Texte.] / . Par Mr Pitton Tournefort... [T. I-III]. Paris: L’Imprimerie Royale. p. 562.
    4. Quammen, David (June 2007). "A Passion for Order". National Geographic Magazine. Archived from the original on August 27, 2008. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
    5. de Queiroz, K & J Gauthier (1990). "Phylogeny as a Central Principle in Taxonomy: Phylogenetic Definitions of Taxon Names" (PDF). Systematic Zoology. 39 (4): 307–322. doi:10.2307/2992353. JSTOR   2992353.
    6. Romer, A. S. (1970) [1949]. The Vertebrate Body (4th <-- ed.). W.B. Saunders. pp. –>.
    7. Sylvain Adnet; Brigitte Senut; Thierry Tortosa; Romain Amiot, Julien Claude, Sébastien Clausen, Anne-Laure Decombeix, Vincent Fernandez, Grégoire Métais, Brigitte Meyer-Berthaud, Serge Muller (25 September 2013). Principes de paléontologie. Dunod. p. 122. ISBN   978-2-10-070313-5. La taxinomie s'enrichit avec l'invenition du mot «taxon» par Adolf Meyer-Abich, naturaliste allemand, dans sa Logik der morphologie, im Rahmen einer Logik der gesamten Biologie (1926) [Translation: Taxonomy is enriched by the invention of the word "taxon" by Adolf Meyer-Abich, German naturalist, in his Logik der morphologie, im Rahmen einer Logik der gesamten Biologie (1926).]{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
    8. Meyer-Abich, Adolf (1926). Logik der Morphologie im Rahmen einer Logik der gesamten Biologie. Springer-Verlag. p. 127. ISBN   978-3-642-50733-5.
    9. Naik, V. N. (1984). Taxonomy of Angiosperms. New Delhi: Tata McGraw Hill. p. 2.
    10. ICZN (1999) International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Glossary Archived 2005-01-03 at the Wayback Machine . International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.