- a taxonomic rank. Other well-known ranks in descending order of size are life, domain, kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, and species, with class fitting between phylum and order. As for the other well-known ranks, there is the option of an immediately lower rank, indicated by the prefix sub-: subclass (Latin: subclassis).
- a taxonomic unit, a taxon, in that rank. In that case the plural is classes (Latin classes)
The composition of each class is determined by a taxonomist. Often there is no exact agreement, with different taxonomists taking different positions. There are no hard rules that a taxonomist needs to follow in describing a class, but for well-known animals there is likely to be consensus. For example, dogs are usually assigned to the phylum Chordata (animals with notochords); in the class Mammalia; in the order Carnivora.
In botany, classes are now rarely discussed. Since the first publication of the APG system in 1998, which proposed a taxonomy of the flowering plants up to the level of orders, many sources have preferred to treat ranks higher than orders as informal clades. Where formal ranks have been assigned, the ranks have been reduced to a very much lower level, e.g. class Equisitopsida for the land plants, with the major divisions within the class assigned to subclasses and superorders.
Hierarchy of ranks
For some clades, a number of alternative classifications are used.
An example from zoology
|Name||Meaning of prefix||Example 1||Example 2||Example 3|
|Parvclass||parvus: small, unimportant||Neornithes|
History of the concept
The class as a distinct rank of biological classification having its own distinctive name (and not just called a top-level genus (genus summum) was first introduced by the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in his classification of plants that appeared in his Eléments de botanique, 1694.
In the first edition of his Systema Naturae (1735). Carl Linnaeus divided all three of his kingdoms of Nature (minerals, plants, and animals) into classes. Only in the animal kingdom are Linnaeus's classes similar to the classes used today; his classes and orders of plants were never intended to represent natural groups, but rather to provide a convenient "artificial key" according to his Systema Sexuale, largely based on the arrangement of flowers.
Since then the class was considered the highest level of the taxonomic hierarchy until George Cuvier's embranchements, first called Phyla by Ernst Haeckel, were introduced in the early nineteenth century.
- Chase, Mark W. & Reveal, James L. (2009), "A phylogenetic classification of the land plants to accompany APG III", Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161 (2): 122–127, doi:10.1111/j.1095-8339.2009.01002.x
- Classification according to Systema Naturae 2000, which conflicts with Wikipedia's classification. "The Taxonomicon: Neornithes". Retrieved 3 December 2010.
- Mayr E. (1982). The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36446-5
- Collins, A.G., Valentine, J.W. (2001). "Defining phyla: evolutionary pathways to metazoan body plans." Evol. Dev. 3: 432-442.