Systematics vs Taxonomy

There are a wealth of posts on their way on syatematics and especially taxonomy on the Musings (just as soon as I find the time to get them up and clear out all the backlog) and this seemed like a good opportunity to drop in a very quick post about the two and what they actually mean and relate to. It seems to me that often in the literature researchers refer to ‘systematics and taxonomy’ as almost a single entity and while they are certainly incredibly closely related, they are separate fields and I suspect the odd reader on here is not aware of the difference.

To put it as simply as possible, taxonomy is the science of naming organisms, and systematics the science of working out their relationships to each other. (And cladistics which is oft mentioned here is the method primarily used in systematics). So there you go, one half puts names on the things and makes sure they are different, the other tries to put them in order.

It should therefore be quite obvious to see how they interlink, and not surprisingly a great many researchers do both (though each side has it’s specialists). Of course a taxonomist could quite happily go though the whole of life (as in organisms, rather than that of the researcher, though I guess this is also true) and name every single species without ever actually worrying about who was related to what, but systematics would really struggle without definitions of species to tell them what they were actually working on.

9 Responses to “Systematics vs Taxonomy”


  1. 1 Robert Huber 09/12/2008 at 10:36 pm

    Maybe this is different in vertebrate paleontology, but in micropaleontology, paleocliamtology etc. ‘name users’ are a quite common species ;) and they mostly ignore both:
    Parataxonomy vs. Taxonomy

  2. 2 David Hone 10/12/2008 at 8:44 am

    Well I can understand it in microp. since you typically have so few characters to work with – it’s easy to get a few hundred cladistic characters (to a few thousand) for most vertebrate clades, each of which has multiple states, and then there are plenty more that can be used as apomorphies for taxonomy. A clam shell simply does not have the same amount of morphology as a dinosaur, and invertebrates tend to be a bit more variable as well, so I can well understand the reluctance or simple difficulty of sorting out the texonomy or systematics of invert groups, let alone diatoms and suchlike.

  3. 3 Robert Huber 10/12/2008 at 4:38 pm

    I agree that invertebrates have less features and should therefore be easier to handle. But.. I think I’ll need a picture to explain what I think the problem is, I’ll post a blog and link back to yours…

  4. 4 David Hone 10/12/2008 at 7:52 pm

    Cool, thanks – I’ll be interested to see what you write. However, I actually think the systematics / taxonomy is harder for these, not easier becuase there are fewer characters available.

  5. 5 Graeme 13/12/2008 at 4:09 am

    Dave, I’m not sure this is right – I think you are confusing systematics and phylogenetics. Both taxonomy and phylogenetics are part of systematics, hence the reason that section in a paper when a new (palaeo)species is named is called “systematic palaeontology” – it is not phylogenetic!

  6. 6 David Hone 13/12/2008 at 1:04 pm

    But those ‘systematic palaeontology’ sections include higher-order taxonomy (i.e. far beyond genus and species) and thus are putting things in a systematic (phylogenetic) context. One can practice taxonomy by just distinguishing the species from each other and giving them a name. Not that this is bad practice, but I am not sure that taxonomy need expressly be part of systematics (rather by definition it was not with Aristotle and for at least some groups with Linneaus). I do take your point though, it probably says more about my take on taxonomy than the common useage of definitions.

  7. 7 Tara 07/05/2010 at 9:47 am

    Thank you – that was exactly what I needed to know!

  8. 9 MANENDRA SINGH NEGI 27/02/2013 at 4:20 am

    nice ,,,,, thanks
    i cleared my concept through this article


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