Introduction to Taxonomy

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Taxonomy

The living world has always been a fascination for science lovers. With a million or more species, humans have been able to explore a considerable part of it. The need for the classification of living beings has been central to understanding the living world. Classification is important to understand biodiversity and how living things are related. Taxonomy or the science of classification of living beings is an essential component of Biology. Let us have a look at all the different aspects of Taxonomy.

What is Taxonomy?

Taxonomy is one of the branches of science that studies the naming, describing and classifying of organisms – whether plants, animals or microorganisms, on the basis of shared characteristics. Classification of organisms is based on morphological, genetic, behavioural and biochemical observations.

Classification of Organisms

There have been numerous attempts to classify living organisms, since the dawn of civilisation. Aristotle was the earliest philosopher to attempt a scientific basis for classification using simple morphological characters to group plants into herbs, shrubs and trees. Besides these, he divided animals into – ones with red blood and those with not. Later in Linnaeus’ time, a Two Kingdom System of Classification was developed with Plantae and Animalia. With time, researchers realised that this classification was inadequate due to the need for incorporating characteristics like cell structure, mode of nutrition, mode of reproduction, habitat, evolutionary relationships, etc. Thus, an American Ecologist, R.H. Whittaker proposed a Five Kingdom Classification – Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae and Animalia. 

Aristotle – Greek philosopher

Father of Taxonomy: Linnaean Taxonomy

Recognised as the “Father of Taxonomy ”, Carl Linnaeus was a Swedish Naturalist to develop a system for naming new species using ‘binomial nomenclature’. For his efforts to identify more than 10,000 different plants and animal species, Linnaeus is known as the greatest Botanist from the 18th century. The Linnaean system of classification was revised to form the basis of the modern classification system. There are 8 distinct taxonomic ranks or categories – Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species and with each step-down, organisms are split into more specific groups. Let us understand each of the taxonomic ranks in detail:

Carl Linnaeus - Father of Taxonomy
Carl Linnaeus – Father of Taxonomy
  1. Domain: The broadest category that splits organisms into 3 categories namely, Bacteria, Archaea (unicellular or prokaryotic) and Eukaryota.
  2. Kingdom: The classification is based on cell structure, body organisation, their mode of nutrition, reproduction and phylogenetic relationships. These include Kingdom Monera, Protista, Plantae, Fungi and Animalia.
  3. Phylum: A classification in Taxonomy that divides kingdoms into various groups. For example, Animal Kingdom has Arthropoda (insects and spiders) and vertebrate animals belong to phylum Chordata.
  4. Class: A next level down, class from let say phylum Chordata includes reptiles, amphibians, mammals and Arthropod classes include insects, arachnids (mites, scorpions, spiders).
  5. Order and Family: From class, organisms are placed in order, followed by family. Order is a taxonomic group that contains one or more families. For example, the order, Carnivora, has many families.
  6. Genus and Species: This is from where the organism derives its scientific name. A species is the group of organisms that breed and produce fertile offspring together.

In Taxonomy, each species is placed into a specific group in each of these categories. Let us understand this by considering the taxonomic classification of humans that falls in the domain of Eukarya. To help you understand the taxonomic classification of humans, given below is the graphical representation. 

Taxonomic Classification of Humans

Systema Naturae

Linnaeus named his system of Taxonomic categories as  ‘Systema Naturae’ which containing 3 kingdoms – classes, orders, genera and species. Since then more categories have been added, including domains and phyla.

Binomial Nomenclature – Taxonomy

Binomial Nomenclature is the formal naming system that scientists use to uniquely name every organism whether living or extinct. The naming procedure includes two Latin words where the first part refers to the  ‘genus’ that the species belong to and the second part is the ‘specific epithet’. And the scientific names are either written in italics or underlined. For example, the scientific name for humans is Homo sapiens, where Homo is their genus and sapiens is the specific epithet.

Taxonomy Examples 

Here is a taxonomy of a dog- 

Subspecies→
(Canius lupus familiaris)
Dog
Species→
(Canius lupus)
Wolf, Dog
Genius→
(Canis)
Jackal, Wolf, Dog
Family→
(Canidae)
Fox, Jackal, Wolf, Dog 
Order →
(Carnivora)
Cat, Fox, Jackal, Wolf, Dog 
Class →
(Mammalia)
Rabbit, Cat, Fox, Jackal, Wolf, Dog 
Phylum →
(Chordata)
Fish, Rabbit, Cat, Fox, Jackal, Wolf, Dog 
Kingdom→
(Animilia)
Insect, Fish, Rabbit, Cat, Fox, Jackal, Wolf, Dog
Domain →
(Eukarya)
Plant, Insect, Fish, Rabbit, Cat, Fox, Jackal, Wolf, Dog

How Should Viruses, Viroids and Lichens be Classified?

Looking at the  Five Kingdom Classification of Whittaker, no mention of acellular organisms like viruses, viroids and lichens is found in Taxonomy. Should these be placed in any of the 3 domains of life? Are they living? In order to consider this, you need to understand the following characteristics:

  • A virus is some DNA or RNA surrounded by a layer of protein. It is not a cell and cannot use energy, grow, respond to stimuli or maintain homeostasis.
  • Viruses reproduce inside the host cell – uses the cell structure, materials and energy to replicate.
  • Viroids are RNA that lacks the protein coating. Also, its RNA has a low molecular weight.
  • Lichens are a symbiotic association between fungi and algae. These are good pollution indicators that do not grow in polluted areas.

Career in Taxonomy

In order to pursue a career in Taxonomy, students should pursue degree courses in Biology, Zoology, Botany, Microbiology, Entomology or a related field of study. Although there are numerous career options for graduates with a bachelor’s degree, most individuals go either for a master’s or PhD degree. The graduate study is majorly focussed on Taxonomy covering a range of concepts like Evolution, Diversity, Population Biology, Chemistry, Biogeography, Genetics, Ecology and Statistics & Computers. Besides this, in order to study abroad, non-native English speakers candidates have to give language proficiency tests like IELTS, TOEFL or PTE. Also, the general eligibility criteria to pursue an MS degree requires students to have a valid GRE score as mentioned by the university.

Also Read:

Courses in Taxonomy

  • MSc Taxonomy, Biodiversity and Evolution
  • MSc in Plant Breeding 
  • MSc Drug Discovery and Translational Biology 
  • Master of Philosophy in Plant Biology 
  • Master of Science in Botany 
  • MSc Plant and Fungal Taxonomy Diversity and Conservation
  • MSc Plant Science (Research)
  • MSc – Ethnobiology
  • MSc Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants PgDip
  • Masters in Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants
  • PgDip Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants

Top Univeristies

Listed below are the top universities that offer courses in Taxonomy-

Courtesy: Taxonomy and Systematics

Career Scope in Taxonomy

Taxonomy is important to distinguish invasive species from native ones, establish which organisms benefit varied ecosystems and understand what all types of plants must be protected. This information can be used by environmental groups, organisations and government departments to protect and preserve various animal and plant species.

Taxonomy Job Profiles

Taxonomist or Research Scientist

Taxonomists are involved in collecting specimens or in a herbarium studying preserved specimens to conduct research projects. Using the identified samples, a taxonomist attempts to classify them based on similar physical features. Due to the extensive fieldwork, scientists work in close association with other institutions and federal or state agencies. Taxonomy research requires book resources, microscopes, imaging systems, digital cameras, computers and databases. 

Biology Teacher

With an understanding of Biology and Taxonomy, a teacher has the required skills to teach courses in Morphology – conduct lab exercises where students dissect several organisms whether fungi, plants, animals, protistan, etc. Moreover, students are taught how evolution has influenced adaptations in different organisms, which is quite visible in their body structure.

Crime Forensics

Forensic scientists use Taxonomy and classification to identify the evidence found at a crime scene which plays a vital position in law enforcement. Crime Forensics requires researchers to have skills like good documentation and an eye for detail besides having knowledge about Genetics and Microbiology.

Wildlife Forensics

Scientists with a degree in Biology and Taxonomy are employed by the fish and wildlife services for forensic cases involving wildlife. These specialists identify animal species in order to enforce international laws associated with wildlife trade. For example, a Taxonomist in Morphology can authenticate the remains of animals belonging to an endangered group.

Major Employment Areas for Taxonomists

Employers for Taxonomy Specialists Job Description
Universities  Universities with large collections of plants employ taxonomists to maintain and conduct research on plant species.
Research Institutions Research on biodiversity collections such as museums and herbaria.
Government Agencies These include public health, wildlife management, agriculture and forestry.
Private Industries Agricultural processors, oil companies, pharmaceutical firms and commercial suppliers of animals and plants are the prime recruiters.
Botanical Gardens Study and conservation of plants besides making plants species diversity known to the public. 
Environmental Impact Assessment Companies Conduct biodiversity surveys.

Average Salary

There are various areas where researchers can focus on, but specialists who choose to study Plant and Animal Taxonomy are generally paid high as compared to others. An Animal Taxonomist makes an average of $48,465 (INR 35,00,000) per year, and Plant Taxonomist, on the other hand, earns up to $40,660 (INR 30,00,000) annually.

We hope that you are now equipped with all the essential details required to have a successful career in Taxonomy. Choosing a subject for overseas education is a big decision and getting admission to top universities abroad is a daunting task, but you need not worry when Leverage Edu can be your companion. Let our experts handle your admission process while you prepare to take a flight to your dream school.

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