What you’ll learn to do: Describe classification and organizational tools biologists use, including modern taxonomy
Viewed from space, Earth offers no clues about the diversity of life forms that reside there. The first forms of life on Earth are thought to have been microorganisms that existed for billions of years in the ocean before plants and animals appeared. The mammals, birds, and flowers so familiar to us are all relatively recent, originating 130 to 200 million years ago. Humans have inhabited this planet for only the last 2.5 million years, and only in the last 200,000 years have humans started looking like we do today.
When faced with the remarkable diversity of life, how do we organize the different kinds of organisms so that we can better understand them? As new organisms are discovered every day, biologists continue to seek answers to these and other questions. In this outcome, we will discuss taxonomy, which both demonstrates the vast diversity of life and tries to organize these organisms in a way we can understand.
- Explain the diversity of life
- Explain the purpose of phylogenetic trees
- Explain how relationships are indicated by the binomial naming system
The Diversity of Life
Biological diversity is the variety of life on earth. This includes all the different plants, animals, and microorganisms; the genes they contain; and the ecosystems they form on land and in water. Biological diversity is constantly changing. It is increased by new genetic variation and reduced by extinction and habitat degradation.
What Is Biodiversity?
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life and its processes, including the variety of living organisms, the genetic differences among them, and the communities and ecosystems in which they occur. Scientists have identified about 1.9 million species alive today. They are divided into the six kingdoms of life shown in Figure 3. Scientists are still discovering new species. Thus, they do not know for sure how many species really exist today. Most estimates range from 5 to 30 million species.
Watch this discussion about biodiversity:
Literally, the word biodiversity means the many different kinds (diversity) of life (bio-), or the number of species in a particular area.
- The most precise and specific measure of biodiversity is genetic diversity or genetic variation within a species. This measure of diversity looks at differences among individuals within a population, or at difference across different populations of the same species.
- The level just broader is species diversity, which best fits the literal translation of biodiversity: the number of different species in a particular ecosystem or on Earth. This type of diversity simply looks at an area and reports what can be found there.
- At the broadest most encompassing level, we have ecosystem diversity. As Leopold clearly understood, the “cogs and wheels” include not only life but also the land, sea, and air that support life. In ecosystem diversity, biologists look at the many types of functional units formed by living communities interacting with their environments.
Although all three levels of diversity are important, the term biodiversity usually refers to species diversity!
Scale of Biodiversity
Diversity may be measured at different scales. These are three indices used by ecologists:
- Alpha diversity refers to diversity within a particular area, community or ecosystem, and is measured by counting the number of taxa within the ecosystem (usually species).
- Beta diversity is species diversity between ecosystems; this involves comparing the number of taxa that are unique to each of the ecosystems.
- Gamma diversity is a measurement of the overall diversity for different ecosystems within a region.
Benefits of Biodiversity
Biodiversity provides us with all of our food. It also provides for many medicines and industrial products, and it has great potential for developing new and improved products for the future. Perhaps most importantly, biological diversity provides and maintains a wide array of ecological “services.” These include provision of clean air and water, soil, food and shelter. The quality—and the continuation— of our life and our economy is dependent on these “services.”
Australia’s Biological Diversity
The long isolation of Australia over much of the last 50 million years and its northward movement have led to the evolution of a distinct biota. Significant features of Australia’s biological diversity include:
- A high percentage of endemic species (that is, they occur nowhere else):
- over 80% of flowering plants
- over 80% of land mammals
- 88% of reptiles
- 45% of birds
- 92% of frogs
- Wildlife groups of great richness. Australia has an exceptional diversity of lizards in the arid zone, many ground orchids, and a total invertebrate fauna estimated at 200,000 species with more than 4,000 different species of ants alone. Marsupials and monotremes collectively account for about 56% of native terrestrial mammals in Australia.
- Wildlife of major evolutionary importance. For example, Australia has 12 of the 19 known families of primitive flowering plants, two of which occur nowhere else. Some species, such as the Queensland lungfish and peripatus, have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.
In scientific terms, the evolutionary history and relationship of an organism or group of organisms is called phylogeny. Phylogeny describes the relationships of one organism to others—such as which organisms it is thought to have evolved from, which species it is most closely related to, and so forth. Phylogenetic relationships provide information on shared ancestry but not necessarily on how organisms are similar or different.
Scientists use a tool called a phylogenetic tree to show the evolutionary pathways and connections among organisms. A phylogenetic tree is a diagram used to reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms or groups of organisms. Scientists consider phylogenetic trees to be a hypothesis of the evolutionary past since one cannot go back to confirm the proposed relationships. In other words, a “tree of life” can be constructed to illustrate when different organisms evolved and to show the relationships among different organisms (Figure 5).
A phylogenetic tree can be read like a map of evolutionary history. Many phylogenetic trees have a single lineage at the base representing a common ancestor. Scientists call such trees rooted, which means there is a single ancestral lineage (typically drawn from the bottom or left) to which all organisms represented in the diagram relate. Notice in the rooted phylogenetic tree that the three domains—Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya—diverge from a single point and branch off. The small branch that plants and animals (including humans) occupy in this diagram shows how recent and minuscule these groups are compared with other organisms. Unrooted trees don’t show a common ancestor but do show relationships among species (Figure 6).
Carl Woese and the Phylogenetic Tree
In the past, biologists grouped living organisms into five kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria. The organizational scheme was based mainly on physical features, as opposed to physiology, biochemistry, or molecular biology, all of which are used by modern systematics. The pioneering work of American microbiologist Carl Woese in the early 1970s has shown, however, that life on Earth has evolved along three lineages, now called domains—Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. The first two are prokaryotic groups of microbes that lack membrane-enclosed nuclei and organelles. The third domain contains the eukaryotes and includes unicellular microorganisms together with the four original kingdoms (excluding bacteria). Woese defined Archaea as a new domain, and this resulted in a new taxonomic tree (Figure 5). Many organisms belonging to the Archaea domain live under extreme conditions and are called extremophiles. To construct his tree, Woese used genetic relationships rather than similarities based on morphology (shape).
Woese’s tree was constructed from comparative sequencing of the genes that are universally distributed, present in every organism, and conserved (meaning that these genes have remained essentially unchanged throughout evolution). Woese’s approach was revolutionary because comparisons of physical features are insufficient to differentiate between the prokaryotes that appear fairly similar in spite of their tremendous biochemical diversity and genetic variability (Figure 7). The comparison of homologous DNA and RNA sequences provided Woese with a sensitive device that revealed the extensive variability of prokaryotes, and which justified the separation of the prokaryotes into two domains: bacteria and archaea.
Taxonomy (which literally means “arrangement law”) is the science of classifying organisms to construct internationally shared classification systems with each organism placed into more and more inclusive groupings. Think about how a grocery store is organized. One large space is divided into departments, such as produce, dairy, and meats. Then each department further divides into aisles, then each aisle into categories and brands, and then finally a single product. This organization from larger to smaller, more specific categories is called a hierarchical system.
In the eighteenth century, a scientist named Carl Linnaeus first proposed organizing the known species of organisms into a hierarchical taxonomy. In this system, species that are most similar to each other are put together within a grouping known as a genus. Furthermore, similar genera (the plural of genus) are put together within a family. This grouping continues until all organisms are collected together into groups at the highest level. The current taxonomic system now has eight levels in its hierarchy, from lowest to highest, they are: species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain. Thus species are grouped within genera, genera are grouped within families, families are grouped within orders, and so on (Figure 8).
The kingdom Animalia stems from the Eukarya domain. For the common dog, the classification levels would be as shown in Figure 8. Therefore, the full name of an organism technically has eight terms. For the dog, it is: Eukarya, Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Carnivora, Canidae, Canis, and lupus. Notice that each name is capitalized except for species, and the genus and species names are italicized. Scientists generally refer to an organism only by its genus and species, which is its two-word scientific name, in what is called binomial nomenclature. Each species has a unique binomial nomenclature to allow for proper identification.
Therefore, the scientific name of the dog is Canis lupus.
It is important that the correct formatting (capitalization and italics) is used when calling an organism by its specific binomial.
The name at each level is also called a taxon. In other words, dogs are in order Carnivora. Carnivora is the name of 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, in this case, dog. Note that the dog is additionally a subspecies: the “familiaris” in Canis lupus familiaris. Subspecies are members of the same species that are capable of mating and reproducing viable offspring, but they are considered separate subspecies due to geographic or behavioral isolation or other factors.
Check Your Understanding
Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.
Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.