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Taxonomy is the name given to the area of science concerned with putting living organisms into catagories, and then giving them unique scientific names. This is important because it allows us to see how 'related' two creatures are and it also means that species can be refered to with a name that is common across all languages.

The system of classifying is hierarchical (there are stages), meaning that there are groups, and then groups within groups, and so on (much like the navigation of this site). At the top are the kingdoms, and then we 'zoom in' and get more and more specific until we have an individual species. The levels of classification are as follows.

levels of taxonomic classification

The levels of classification are based on the evolutionary history of species (a bit like a family tree), and it is said to be phylogenetic [fi-lo-jen-et-ic].

At the very origins of Taxonomy with Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s, organisms were classified based on their appearance (morphology) and geographic distribution; however, in recent years the discovery and use of genes means that more precision can be used, leading to major reclassifications.

All species are given a scientific name called a binomial name, this consists of two words and takes the form Genus species; for example, humans are in the genus Homo, and are the species Sapiens, therefore the binomial name is Homo sapiens. whilst the fruit fly is Drosophila melanogaster. This allows scientists from around the world to talk about the same species using one name.

The Five Kingdoms

The very top layer of classification are the kingdoms, and there are now agreed there are 5 of these (originally two: plant and animal). Below the kingdoms are listed with a brief description of common features.

AnimaliaAll are eukaryotes; the cells do not have walls; and they cannot make their own food.Worms, insects, sponges, birds.
FungiHave cell walls made of chitin, are heterotrophic (get their food by feeding rather than photsynthesis), can grow as single-celled form (yeast)Mushrooms, moulds, brewers yeast.
BacteriaAll organisms here are prokaryotic, mainly reproduce by binary fission (splitting in half).E Coli, Penicillium, MRSA.
PlantaePlants, cells have cell wall, most produce their own food by photosynthesis.Mosses, ferns, flowering plants, trees
ProtozoaMicroscopic organisms that are capable of independent movement and feed (rather than making their own food). Amoebas, malarial parasite.


Defining a species is difficult: but one of the most common is: a population of similar individuals that can mate and produce fertile offspring (ie. they can themselves reproduce). For example, a horse and donkey can mate and produce offspring: the mule, but mules are sterile.

New species are a result of isolation. There are various types of isolation but in general it is when part of the population becomes seperated so that they can no longer breed.

New species evolve when members of a species become isolated. During this isolation, natural selection might occur so that allele and phenotype frequency change, and eventually differences become so great that a seperate species is formed.

Updated: 1 April 2012