Classification is not a single step process but involves hierarchy of steps in which each step represents a rank or category. Since the category is a part of overall taxonomic arrangement, it is called the taxonomic category and all categories together constitute the taxonomic hierarchy. Each category, referred to as a unit of classification, in fact, represents a rank and is commonly termed as taxon (pl.: taxa). Taxonomic categories and hierarchy can be illustrated by an example. Insects represent a group of organisms sharing common features like three pairs of jointed legs. It means insects are recognisable concrete objects which can be classified, and thus were given a rank or category. Can you name other such groups of organisms? Remember, groups represent category.
Category further denotes rank. Each rank or taxon, in fact, represents a unit of classification. These taxonomic groups/ categories are distinct biological entities and not merely morphological aggregates. Taxonomical studies of all known organisms have led to the development of common categories such as kingdom, phylum or division (for plants), class, order, family, genus and species. All organisms, including those in the plant and animal kingdoms have species as the lowest category. Now the question you may ask is, how to place an organism in various categories? The basic requirement is the knowledge of characters of an individual or group of organisms. This helps in identifying similarities and dissimilarities among the individuals of the same kind of organisms as well as of other kinds of organisms.
Taxonomic studies consider a group of individual organisms with fundamental similarities as a species. One should be able to distinguish one species from the other closely related species based on the distinct morphological differences. Let us consider Mangifera indica, Solanum tuberosum (potato) and Panthera leo (lion). All the three names, indica, tuberosum and leo, represent the specific epithets, while the first words Mangifera, Solanum and Panthera are genera and represents another higher level of taxon or category. Each genus may have one or more than one specific epithets representing different organisms, but having morphological similarities. For example, Panthera has another specific epithet called tigris and Solanum includes species like nigrum and melongena. Human beings belong to the species sapiens which is grouped in the genus Homo. The scientific name thus, for human being, is written as Homo sapiens.
Genus comprises a group of related species which has more characters in common in comparison to species of other genera. We can say that genera are aggregates of closely related species. For example, potato and brinjal are two different species but both belong to the genus Solanum. Lion (Panthera leo), leopard (P. pardus) and tiger (P. tigris) with several common features, are all species of the genus Panthera. This genus differs from another genus Felis which includes cats.
The next category, Family, has a group of related genera with still less number of similarities as compared to genus and species. Families are characterised on the basis of both vegetative and reproductive features of plant species. Among plants for example, three different genera Solanum, Petunia and Datura are placed in the family Solanaceae. Among animals for example, genus Panthera, comprising lion, tiger, leopard is put along with genus, Felis (cats) in the family Felidae. Similarly, if you observe the features of a cat and a dog, you will find some similarities and some differences as well. They are separated into two different families – Felidae and Canidae, respectively.
You have seen earlier that categories like species, genus and families are based on a number of similar characters. Generally, order and other higher taxonomic categories are identified based on the aggregates of characters. Order being a higher category, is the assemblage of families which exhibit a few similar characters. The similar characters are less in number as compared to different genera included in a family. Plant families like Convolvulaceae, Solanaceae are included in the order Polymoniales mainly based on the floral characters. The animal order, Carnivora, includes families like Felidae and Canidae.
This category includes related orders. For example, order Primata comprising monkey, gorilla and gibbon is placed in class Mammalia along with order Carnivora that includes animals like tiger, cat and dog. Class Mammalia has other orders also.
Classes comprising animals like fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds along with mammals constitute the next higher category called Phylum. All these, based on the common features like presence of notochord and dorsal hollow neural system, are included in phylum Chordata. In case of plants, classes with a few similar characters are assigned to a higher category called Division.
All animals belonging to various phyla are assigned to the highest category called Kingdom Animalia in the classification system of animals. The Kingdom Plantae, on the other hand, is distinct, and comprises all plants from various divisions. Henceforth, we will refer to these two groups as animal and plant kingdoms. The taxonomic categories from species to kingdom have been shown in ascending order starting with species in Figure 1.1. These are broad categories. However, taxonomists have also developed sub-categories in this hierarchy to facilitate more sound and scientific placement of various taxa. Look at the hierarchy in Figure 1.1. Can you recall the basis of arrangement? Say, for example, as we go higher from species to kingdom, the number of common characteristics goes on decreasing. Lower the taxa, more are the characteristics that the members
within the taxon share. Higher the category, greater is the difficulty of
determining the relationship to other taxa at the same level. Hence, the
problem of classification becomes more complex.