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What is a species?

Module by: Alison Fromme. E-mail the author

Summary: What is a species? In the past, scientists classified living things into categories based primarily on morphological characteristics, such as beak size, tail length, and coat patterning. Today, scientists use several methods, including genetic analyses, as described below.

species_pix_header3.png

Recent Research

Scientists are refining their taxonomic strategies in the hope of developing a standardized method of classifying, identifying, and describing the evolutionary history of species. The following links will take you to original research addressing these issues.

How do scientists identify and name species?

What is a species? Scientists don't agree on the exact definition of a species. Read about species concepts on this UC Berkeley site.

What is taxonomy? Taxonomists name and classify living things, so they play an important role in determining how we define species. Read more about taxonomy at this Vision Learning website.

Who was Linnaeus? Read about the taxonomist Linnaeus on this UC Berkeley site.

PBS NOVA Interactive:

Try your hand at classifying living things using Linnaeus's method.

What are the current approaches to classification? Scientists today use morhological (physical) traits, embryology (patterns of development), and molecular biology to identify species.

PBS Interactive:

Classify organisms using current methods in this activity.

Can't get to a museum? Visit the Zoological Museum Amsterdam in the Netherlands online and check out hundreds of 3-D bird specimens online.

Your turn...

  • Why is the naming and classifying of species so difficult?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of different methods?
  • If you could create your own classification system, what factors would you consider?

Digging Deeper: Want more detail about how classification, taxonomy, and evolution are related? The National Center for Biotechnology Information provides a very thorough explanation.

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