In biology, a taxon (plural: taxa) is a group of one (or more) populations of organism(s), which a taxonomist adjudges to be a unit. Usually a taxon is given a name and a rank, although neither is a requirement. Defining what belongs or does not belong to such a taxonomic group is done by a taxonomist with the science of taxonomy. It is not uncommon for one taxonomist to disagree with another on what exactly belongs to a taxon, or on what exact criteria should be used for inclusion. The idea of a "natural system" of classification goes back to the dawn of scientific nomenclature in the mid-18th Century, as indicated by the title of Carolus Linnaeus' 1758 Systema Naturae. Systematists since that time have striven to determine the true classification of the diversity of life, which was at that time thought to reflect the Plan of Creation. Today it is common to define a "good taxon" as one that reflects evolutionary (phylogenetic) relationships, but this is not mandatory, as is evident from commonly used words for non-monophyletic entities such as invertebrates, conifers and fish.
A taxon may be given a formal scientific name, the application of which is governed by one of the Nomenclature Codes, which set out rules to determine which scientific name is correct for that particular grouping.
Many modern systematists using cladistic methods, including advocates of phylogenetic nomenclature, require taxa to be monophyletic, consisting of all descendants of some ancestor. They generally do not refer to taxa as their basic unit, but to "clades". Even in "traditional" Linnean nomenclature, few taxonomists of our time establish new taxa that they know to be paraphyletic. A famous example of a widely accepted taxon that is not also a clade is the "Reptilia".
The term taxon, probably based on taxonomy, was first used in 1926 by Adolf Bernhard Meyer for animal groups. For plants, it was proposed by Herman Johannes Lam in 1948, and it was adopted at the VII International Botanical Congress, held in 1950.
- "taxon, (pl. taxa), n.
- A taxonomic unit, whether named or not: i.e. a population, or group of populations of organisms which are usually inferred to be phylogenetically related and which have characters in common which differentiate (q.v.) the unit (e.g. a geographic population, a genus, a family, an order) from other such units. A taxon encompasses all included taxa of lower rank (q.v.) and individual organisms. [...]"
But there are other definitions.
A taxon can be assigned a taxonomic rank, usually (but not necessarily) when it is given a formal name. The rank of a given taxon is not necessarily fixed, but can be altered later by another (or the same) taxonomist.
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A prefix is used to indicate a ranking of lesser importance. The prefix super- indicates a rank above, the prefix sub- indicates a rank below. In zoology the prefix infra- indicates a rank below sub-. For instance, among the additional ranks of class are superclass, subclass and infraclass.
Rank is relative, and restricted to a particular systematic schema. For example, liverworts have been grouped, in various systems of classification, as a family, order, class, or division (phylum). The use of a narrow set of ranks is challenged by users of cladistics; for example, the mere 10 ranks traditionally used between animal families (governed by the ICZN) and animal phyla (usually the highest relevant rank in taxonomic work) often cannot adequately represent the evolutionary history as more about a lineage's phylogeny becomes known. In addition, the class rank is quite often not an evolutionary but a phenetic or paraphyletic group and as opposed to those ranks governed by the ICZN (family-level, genus-level and species-level taxa), can usually not be made monophyletic by exchanging the taxa contained therein. This has given rise to phylogenetic taxonomy and the ongoing development of the PhyloCode, which has been proposed as a new alternative to replace Linnean classification and govern the application of names to clades. Many cladists do not see any need to depart from traditional nomenclature as governed by the ICZN, ICBN, etc.
- ABCD Schema
- Alpha taxonomy
- Folk taxonomy
- International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN)
- International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN)
- Rank (botany)
- Rank (zoology)
- Segregate (taxonomy)
- Virus classification