Kingdoms are divided into a hierarchical system of categories called taxa (sing. taxon). The taxa are, from most to least inclusive: phylum (usually called division in botany), class, order, family, genus, and species. Intermediate divisions, such as suborder and superfamily, are sometimes added to make needed distinctions. The lower a taxon is in the hierarchy, the more closely related are its members.
The species, the fundamental unit of classification, consists of populations of genetically similar interbreeding or potentially interbreeding individuals. If two populations of a species are completely isolated geographically and therefore evolve separately, they will be considered two species once they are no longer capable of mixing genetically if brought together. In a few cases interbreeding is possible between members of closely related species—for example, horses, asses, and zebras can all interbreed. The offspring of such crosses, however, are usually sterile, so the two groups are nonetheless kept separate by their genetic incompatibility. Populations within a species that show recognizable, inherited differences but are capable of interbreeding freely are called subspecies, races, or varieties.
The genus (pl. genera) is a grouping of similar, closely related species. For example, the domestic cat and the jungle cat are species of the genus Felis ; dogs, wolves, and jackals belong to the genus Canis. Often the genus is an easily recognized grouping with a popular name; for example, the various oak species, such as black oak and live oak, form the oak genus ( Quercus ). Similarly, genera are grouped into families, families into orders, orders into classes, and classes into phyla or divisions.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.