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What is Animal Taxonomy? (Explained)

We know that the animal kingdom is vast and diverse, with many different species of animals and organisms within it. With so many species and such diversity, scientists need a system to classify and separate species from one another.

In this article, we will be learning all about animal taxonomy.

What is animal taxonomy?

Photo collage of different animals
Photo collage of different animals

Animal taxonomy is the science of classifying animals based on their traits, similarities and differences. Taxonomy classifies animals using a hierarchical structure made up of several different levels. Animal taxonomy also has a system to name different species, also known as binomial nomenclature.

Animal taxonomy is constantly changing and scientists and taxonomists continue to gather new information. This is why the number of species of a particular taxonomic group may be different depending on who you ask and when.

What are the levels of taxonomy?

Levels of taxonomy
Levels of taxonomy

As mentioned previously, taxonomy has a hierarchy made up of several levels. These levels range in how inclusive or exclusive they are. Starting from the most inclusive taxonomic classification:

  1. Domain: Domain is the highest level and also the most general of the classifications. It is broken up into three large groups: Bacteria, Archaea (single-celled organisms) and Eukarya, which animals belong to.
  2. Kingdom: Kingdom up until relatively recently was the highest rank. There are several groups or kingdoms that this rank is split up into, and taxonomists disagree on how many groups there should be. Animals fall into kingdom animalia.
  3. Phylum: There are many phyla within each kingdom. The animal kingdom has approximately 35 different phyla. Some phyla include chordata (animals with a spinal or nerve cord), arthropoda (arthropods like crabs, spiders, and centipedes) and porifera (the sponges).
  4. Class: The animal kingdom can be broken up into over 100 different classes including Aves (birds), Mammalia (mammals), and Reptilia (reptiles).
  5. Order: Order is slightly more specific than class. Each class is broken up into several different orders. For example, class Mammalia is broken up into over 20 different orders.
  6. Family: Family is when taxonomic becomes a bit more specific and exclusive. Within each order there are bound to be several different families. For example, Mammalia is broken up into order Carnivora (carnivores) which can then further be split up into families such as Canidae (dogs, foxes, wolves).
  7. Genus: Genus is the second most specific rank. Animals are broken up into genera with other species that are very similar to them. When using an animals scientific or latin name, it is the first part that refers to the genus. The genus name should be capitalized and italicized.
  8. Species: Species is the most specific rank. There are tens of thousands of different species in the animal kingdom. When using the scientific name, species comes after genus and is also italicized but is in all lower case letters.

Why is taxonomy important in animals?

Taxonomy is important because it lays out a system to classify and group different organisms in a way that allows for scientists to communicate important information. It is used to help scientists understand biodiversity and characterize life on earth.

Scientific names given to species using the roadmaps presented by the field of taxonomy help to reduce confusion. For example, there are many different species of rat snakes all over the world, but in the United States, the rat snakes here are different from the species of rat snakes in other parts of the world. Scientific names are unique to each individual species and therefore important for biologists to be able to differentiate between different organisms.

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What is an example of taxonomy?

Taxonomy takes into account an array of characteristics and the genetic makeup of organisms to classify them. For example, humans and elephants are both animals within the phlyum chordata due to the presence of a spinal cord.

We also share the same class (Mammalia) as we share many characteristics (warm blooded, presence of hair, mammary glands, give live birth). But after class, we are broken up as we also obviously have many differences!

How are animals classified?

Animals are classified using the taxonomic ranks. Taxonomists will get all the information they can about an animal like its morphology, how they move, and where they came from. They will then start with the most broad taxonomic group (domain) and move down and compare and contrast the species with other species to see where they fit best.

Taxonomists may also use genetic information when species are discovered that are very very similar to other species to see if they are genetically different.

What are the different types of taxonomy?

There are many things that taxonomists consider when classifying species. Taxonomy can be broken up into three main approaches.

  1. Artificial classification: Takes into account the physical characteristics of a specimen (color, number of appendages, plumage type, etc.) and groups them with other similar species
  2. Natural classification: Classifies organisms based on their shared ancestors and then by using shared traits
  3. Phylogenetic classification: Uses genetic information to find relationships and ancestral lineages
Samantha Smith B.S.

About Samantha Smith B.S.

Samantha is a wildlife biologist with degrees in animal behavior and environmental biology. Most of her work has been with reptiles, however she has also worked with birds and marine organisms as well. She enjoys hiking, snorkeling, and looking for wildlife.