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Taxonomy Description

Felines are a ‘Family’ of mammals in the animal kingdom. But what does this really mean and how does it relate them to other animals? Science understands the organization of nature to be hierarchical with each step on the ladder or branch of the tree describing a degree of physical similarity, and from more recent findings, genetic closeness. This branch of knowledge is called taxonomy.

Family (Sub-Family)
Species (SubSpecies)

The organization of living things can be seen like a pyramid or tree with seven major levels or categories along with the common name: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species (Subspecies). Taxonomy often includes the "Common Name" for reference.

If we take a Siberian Tiger, we can trace it through the hierarchy of nature, taxonomy as follows, it belongs to:

Kingdom: Animalia
Sharing with all other members of this group the need to feed on organic matter (unlike plants which can create energy using light and minerals).

Phylum: Chordata (or vertebrata)
Sharing with all other members of this group of animals, a backbone with a hollow nerve chord.

Class: Mammalia
Sharing with all other members of this group of vertebrates, the ability to feed their offspring on milk and having a body covering which includes fur.

Order: Carnivora
Sharing with all other members of this group of mammals, extreme night vision capabilities and various more broadly defined characteristics including: high intelligence, relatively long maturation period for the young, dental similarities, tendency for complex social organization, and generally bearing 2-3 young in a litter (but they may birth as many as 4-5 at one time).

Family: Felidae (cat)
Sharing with other members of this group of mammals, a tail, sharp claws, elongated incisor canine teeth or fangs.

SubFamily: Panthernae

Genus: Panthera tigris
Sharing with other members of this group of felines, scent marking methods, vocalizations, aspects of social structure and overall body shape

Species: Panthera tigris altaicia

A species is the primary unit of biological classification or taxonomy. Species members share a basic genetic similarity and can interbreed and produce viable or fertile offspring.

It is important to be aware, when exploring the field of taxonomy, as is true in many branches of science, it is always changing and evolving. As our knowledge deepens and our tools for investigation become more precise there are often shifts and changes in how we describe an animal from a taxonomic point of view. A classic case can be seen with Pandas. When first described by European scientists they were classified as bears or ursids… a family of carnivores (order) in the mammal class of vertebrate animals. Then for a few decades, scientists thought that they weren’t bears and placed them, still within the carnivore order… but in a family closer to raccoons. In the last fifteen years, after further study and aided by the new science of gene mapping, pandas have been returned to the bear family… an unusual case of an older view still being (at least for now) correct after all.

If you choose to explore taxonomy with your students it is wise to avoid too many absolutes and to encourage a questioning environment in your discussions.

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