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The Levels of Classification

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

Taxonomy (which literally means “arrangement law”) is the science of naming and grouping species to construct an internationally shared classification system. The taxonomic classification system (also called the Linnaean system after its inventor, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist) uses a hierarchical model. A hierarchical system has levels and each group at one of the levels includes groups at the next lowest level, so that at the lowest level each member belongs to a series of nested groups. An analogy is the nested series of directories on the main disk drive of a computer. For example, in the most inclusive grouping, scientists divide organisms into three domains: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Within each domain is a second level called a kingdom. Each domain contains several kingdoms. Within kingdoms, the subsequent categories of increasing specificity are: phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

As an example, the classification levels for the domestic dog are shown in Figure 12.3. The group at each level is called a taxon(plural: taxa). In other words, for the dog, Carnivora is the taxon at the order level,Canidae is the taxon at the family level, and so forth. Organisms also have a common name that people typically use, such as domestic dog, or wolf. Each taxon name is capitalized except for species, and the genus and species names are italicized. Scientists refer to an organism by its genus and species names together, commonly called a scientific name, or Latin name. This two-name system is called binomial nomenclature. The scientific name of the wolf is therefore Canis lupus. Recent study of the DNA of domestic dogs and wolves suggest that the domestic dog is a subspecies of the wolf, not its own species, thus it is given an extra name to indicate its subspecies status, Canis lupus familiaris.

Figure 12.3 also shows how taxonomic levels move toward specificity. Notice how within the domain we find the dog grouped with the widest diversity of organisms. These include plants and other organisms not pictured, such as fungi and protists. At each sublevel, the organisms become more similar because they are more closely related. Before Darwin’s theory of evolution was developed, naturalists sometimes classified organisms using arbitrary similarities, but since the theory of evolution was proposed in the 19th century, biologists work to make the classification system reflect evolutionary relationships. This means that all of the members of a taxon should have a common ancestor and be more closely related to each other than to members of other taxa.

Recent genetic analysis and other advancements have found that some earlier taxonomic classifications do not reflect actual evolutionary relationships, and therefore, changes and updates must be made as new discoveries take place. One dramatic and recent example was the breaking apart of prokaryotic species, which until the 1970s were all classified as bacteria. Their division into Archaea and Bacteria came about after the recognition that their large genetic differences warranted their separation into two of three fundamental branches of life.



Figure 12.3 At each sublevel in the taxonomic classification system, organisms become more similar. Dogs and wolves are the same species because they can breed and produce viable offspring, but they are different enough to be classified as different subspecies. 

In what levels are cats and dogs considered to be part of the same group?


Visit this PBS site ( to learn more about taxonomy. Under Classifying Life, click Launch Interactive.