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In biology, a phylum (plural: phyla)[note 1] is a taxonomic rank below Kingdom and above Class. "Phylum" is equivalent to the botanical term division.[1] Phylum is one of the major biological divisions called Taxa. Although "phylum" is often used as if it were a clearly defined term, no satisfactory definition of it exists. In fact, "phylum" may be a misnomer indicative of ignorance.[2] Consequently the number of phyla varies from one author to the next. The relationships among phyla are becoming increasingly well known, and larger clades can be found to contain many of the phyla.

General description and familiar examples

Informally, phyla can be thought of as grouping organisms based on general body plan,[3] as well as developmental or internal organizations.[4] For example, though seemingly divergent, spiders and crabs both belong to Arthropoda, whereas earthworms and tapeworms, similar in shape, are from Annelida and Platyhelminthes, respectively. Although the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature allows the use of the term "phylum" in reference to plants, the term "Division" is almost always used by botanists.

The best known animal phyla are the Mollusca, Porifera, Cnidaria, Platyhelminthes, Nematoda, Annelida, Arthropoda, Echinodermata, and Chordata, the phylum to which humans belong, along with all other vertebrate species, as well as some invertebrates such as the lamprey. Although there are approximately 35 phyla, these nine include over 96% of animal species. Many phyla are exclusively marine, and only one phylum, the Onychophora (velvet worms) is entirely absent from the world's oceans–although ancestral onycophorans were marine.[5]

Defining a phylum

At the most basic level, a phylum can be defined in two ways: as a group of organisms with a certain degree of morphological or developmental similarity (the phenetic definition), or a group of organisms with a certain degree of evolutionary relatedness (the phylogenetic definition).[6] Attempting to define a level of the Linnean hierarchy without referring to (evolutionary) relatedness is an unsatisfactory approach, but the phenetic definition is more useful when addressing questions of a morphological nature – such as how successful different body plans were.

Definition based on genetic relation

The largest objective measure in the above definitions is the "certain degree" – how unrelated do organisms need to be to be members of different phyla? The minimal requirement is that all organisms in a phylum should be related closely enough for them to be clearly more closely related to one another than to any other group.[6] However, even this is problematic, as the requirement depends on our current knowledge about organisms' relationships: As more data becomes available, particularly from molecular studies, we are better able to judge the relationships between groups. So phyla can be merged or split if it becomes apparent that they are related to one another or not; for example, since the onychophora and the tardigrada have now been accepted as stem groups of the arthropods, these three phyla should be combined.

This changeability of phyla has led some biologists to call for the concept of a phylum to be abandoned in favour of cladistics, a method in which groups are placed on a "family tree" without any formal ranking of group size.[6] So as to provide a handle on the size and significance of groups, a "body-plan" based definition of a phylum has been proposed by paleontologists Graham Budd and Sören Jensen. The definition was posited by paleontologists because it is extinct organisms that are typically hardest to classify, because they can be extinct off-shoots that diverged from a phylum's history before the characters that define the modern phylum were all acquired.

Definition based on body plan

By Budd and Jensen's definition, phyla are defined by a set of characters shared by all their living representatives. This has a couple of small problems – for instance, characters common to most members of a phylum may be secondarily lost by some members. It is also defined based on an arbitrary point of time (the present). However, as it is character based, it is easy to apply to the fossil record. A more major problem is that it relies on an objective decision of which group of organisms should be considered a phylum.

Its utility is that it makes it easy to classify extinct organisms as "stem groups" to the phyla with which they bear the most resemblance, based only on the taxonomically important similarities.[6] However, proving that a fossil belongs to the crown group of a phylum is difficult, as it must display a character unique to a sub-set of the crown group.[6] Further, organisms in the stem group to a phylum can bear all the aspects of the "body plan" of the phylum without all the characters necessary to fall within it. This weakens the idea that each of the phyla represents a distinct body plan.[7]

Based upon this definition, which some say is unreasonably affected by the chance survival of rare groups, which vastly increase the size of phyla, representatives of many modern phyla did not appear until long after the Cambrian – as late as the Carboniferous in the case of the Priapulids.[8]


Animal phyla

Phylum Meaning Common Name Distinguishing characteristic Species described
Acanthocephala Thorny headed worms Thorny-headed worms Reversible spiny proboscis about 750
Acoelomorpha Without gut Acoels No mouth or alimentary canal(alimentary canal = digestive tract in digestive system)
Annelida Little ring Segmented worms Multiple circular segment about 16,300 modern
Arthropoda Jointed foot Arthropods Chitin exoskeleton 1,134,000+
Brachiopoda Arm foot Lamp shells Lophophore and pedicle between 300 and 500 extant
Bryozoa Moss animals Moss animals, sea mats Lophophore, no pedicle, ciliated tentacles about 5,000 living species
Chaetognatha Longhair jaw Arrow worms Chitinous spines either side of head, fins about 100 modern species
Chordata Cord Chordates Hollow dorsal nervous chord, notochord, pharyngeal slits, endostyle, post-anal tail about 100,000+
Cnidaria Stinging nettle Coelenterates Nematocysts (stinging cells) about 11,000
Ctenophora Comb bearer Comb jellies Eight "comb rows" of fused cilia about 100 modern species
Cycliophora Wheel carrying Symbion Circular mouth surrounded by small cilia at least 3
Echinodermata Spiny skin Echinoderms Fivefold radial symmetry in living forms, mesodermal calcified spines about 7,000 extant and 13,000 extinct species
Echiura Spine tail Spoon worms Set of hooks at posterior end about 140
Entoprocta Inside anus Goblet worm Anus inside ring of cilia about 150
Gastrotricha Hair stomach Meiofauna Two terminal adhesive tubes about 690
Gnathostomulida Jaw orifice Jaw worms about 100
Hemichordata Half cord Acorn worms, pterobranchs Stomochord in collar, pharyngeal slits about 100 living species
Kinorhyncha Motion snout Mud dragons Eleven segments, each with a dorsal plate about 150
Loricifera Corset bearer Brush heads Umbrella-like scales at each end about 122
Micrognathozoa Tiny jaw animals Accordion like extensible thorax 1
Mollusca Thin shell Mollusks / molluscs Muscular foot and mantle round shell 112,000[9]
Nematoda Thread like Round worms Round cross section, keratin cuticle 80,000 – 1 million
Nematomorpha Thread form Horsehair worms about 320
Nemertea A sea nymph Ribbon worms about 1,200
Onychophora Claw bearer Velvet worms Legs tipped by chitinous claws about 200 modern
Orthonectida Straight swim Single layer of ciliated cells surrounding a mass of sex cells about 20
Phoronida Zeus's mistress Horseshoe worms U-shaped gut 20
Placozoa Plate animals 1
Platyhelminthes Flat worms Flat worms about 25,000[10]
Porifera Pore bearer Sponges Perforated interior wall over 5,000 modern
Priapulida Little Priapus
Rhombozoa Lozenge animal Single axial cell surrounded by ciliated cells 75
Rotifera Wheel bearer Rotifers Anterior crown of cilia about 2,000
Sipuncula Small tube Peanut worms Mouth surrounded by invertible tentacles 144–320
Tardigrada Slow step Water bears Four segmented body and head 1,000+
Xenoturbellida Strange flatworm Ciliated deuterostome 2
Total: 36 2,000,000-

Groups formerly ranked as phyla

Name as phylum Common name Current consensus
Aschelminthes Pseudocoelomates Divided into several pseudocoelomate phyla.
Craniata Subgroup of phylum Chordata; perhaps synonymous with Vertebrata.
Cephalochordata Lancelets Subphylum of phylum Chordata.
Cephalorhyncha Superphylum Scalidophora.
Enterepneusta Acorn worms Class of phylum Hemichordata.
Gephyra Peanut worms and spoon worms Divided into phyla Sipuncula and Echiura.
Mesozoa Mesozoans Divided into phyla Orthonectida and Rhombozoa.
Myxozoa Severely modified Cnidarians.
Pentastomida Tongue worms Subclass of Maxillopoda of phylum Arthropoda.
Pogonophora Beard worms Part of family Siboglinidae of phylum Annelida.
Pterobranchia Class of phylum Hemichordata.
Symplasma Glass sponges Class Hexactinellida of phylum Porifera.
Urochordata Tunicates Subphylum of phylum Chordata.
Vestimentifera Vent worms Part of family Siboglinidae of phylum Annelida.

Plant divisions

Division Meaning Common name Distinguishing characteristics
Anthocerotophyta Flower-horn plants Hornworts Horn-shaped sporophytes, no vascular system
Bryophyta Moss plants Mosses Persistent unbranched sporophytes, no vascular system
Marchantiophyta Marchantia plants Liverworts Ephemeral unbranched sporophytes, no vascular system
Lycopodiophyta Wolf foot plants Clubmosses & Spikemosses Microphyll leaves, vascular system
Pteridophyta Fern plants Ferns & Horsetails Prothallus gametophytes, vascular system
Pteridospermatophyta Fern with seeds plant Seed ferns Only known from fossils, mostly Devonian, ranking in dispute[11]
Coniferophyta Sap/pitch plants Conifers Cones containing seeds and wood composed of tracheids
Cycadophyta Palm plants Cycads Seeds, crown of compound leaves
Ginkgophyta Ginkgo plants Ginkgo, Maidenhair Seeds not protected by fruit (single species)
Gnetophyta Gnetophytes Seeds and woody vascular system with vessels
Anthophyta (or Magnoliophyta)  Flower plant Flowering plants Flowers and fruit, vascular system with vessels

Fungal divisions

Phylum Meaning Common name Distinguishing characteristics
Chytridiomycota Little pot mushroom Chytrids Cellulose in cell walls, flagellated gametes
Deuteromycota Second mushroom Imperfect fungi Unclassified fungi; only asexual reproduction observed
Zygomycota Yolk mushroom Zygomycetes Blend gametangia to form a zygosporangium
Glomeromycota Ball mushroom None Form arbuscular mycorrhizae with plants
Ascomycota Bag/Wineskin Mushroom Sac fungi Produce spores in an 'ascus'
Basidiomycota Basidium Mushroom Club Fungi Produce spores from a 'basidium'

See also
Darlingtonia californica.jpg Biology portal

* Cladistics
* Phylogenetics
* Systematics
* Taxonomy


1. ^ "Phylum" is adopted from the Greek φυλαί phylai, the clan-based voting groups in Greek city-states.


1. ^ "Life sciences". The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (third ed.). Houghton Mifflin Company. 2005. Retrieved 2008-10-04. "Phyla in the plant kingdom are frequently called divisions."
2. ^ Bengtson,, S. (1986). "Introduction: The problem of the problematica,". in Hoffman, A.; Nitecki, M. H.. Problematic Fossil Taxa. Oxford,: Oxford University Press,. pp. 3–11.
3. ^ Valentine, James W. (2004). On the Origin of Phyla. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. pp. 7. ISBN 0226845486. "Classifications of organisms in hierarchical systems were in use by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Usually organisms were grouped according to their what? morphological similarities as perceived by those early workers, and those groups were then grouped according to their similarities, and so on, to form a hierarchy."
4. ^ Parker, Andrew (2003). In the blink of an eye: How vision kick-started the big bang of evolution. Sydney: Free Press. pp. 1–4. ISBN 0743257332. "The job of an evolutionary biologist is to create dinosaurs for the devil to consume, make sense of the conflicting diversity of form – there is not always a relationship between internal and external parts. Early in the history of the subject, it became obvious that internal organisations were generally more important to the higher classification of animals than are external shapes. The internal organisation puts general restrictions on how an animal can exchange gases, obtain nutrients and reproduce."
5. ^ Davidson, E. H; Erwin, D. H (2006). "Gene Regulatory Networks and the Evolution of Animal Body Plans". Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 311 (5762): 796–800. doi:10.1126/science.1113832. PMID 16469913.
6. ^ a b c d e Budd, G.E.; Jensen, S. (2000). "A critical reappraisal of the fossil record of the bilaterian phyla". Biological Reviews 75 (02): 253–295. doi:10.1017/S000632310000548X. Retrieved 2007-05-26.
7. ^ Budd, G.E. (1998). Lethaia (Blackwell Synergy) 31 (3): 197–210. doi:10.1111/j.1502-3931.1998.tb00508.x.
8. ^ Briggs, D. E. G; Fortey, R. A (2005). "Wonderful strife: systematics, stem groups, and the phylogenetic signal of the Cambrian radiation". Paleobiology 31 (2 (Suppl)): 94–112. doi:10.1666/0094-8373(2005)031[0094:WSSSGA]2.0.CO;2.
9. ^ Feldkamp, S. (2002) Modern Biology. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, USA. (pp. 725)
10. ^ Species Register. "Flatworms — Phylum Platyhelminthes". Marine Discovery Centres. Retrieved 2007-04-09.
11. ^ ""Kingdom Plantae Tree of Life"".

External links

* Are phyla "real"? Is there really a well-defined "number of animal phyla" extant and in the fossil record?
* Major Phyla Of Animals


* American Heritage Dictionary: New Latin phylum, from Greek phūlon, class.
* Online Etymological Dictionary: from Gk. phylon "race, stock," related to phyle "tribe, clan," and phylein "bring forth" of physikos "pertaining to nature," from physis "nature"

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