Form taxon
Form classification is the classification of organisms based on their morphology, which does not necessarily reflect their biological relationships. Form classification, generally restricted to palaeontology, reflects uncertainty; the goal of science is to move "form taxa" to biological taxa whose affinity is known.

Strictly defined, form taxonomy is restricted to fossils that preserve too few characters for a conclusive taxonomic definition or assessment of their biological affinity, but whose study is made easier if a binomial name is available by which to identify them. The term "Form classification" is preferred to "Form taxonomy"; taxonomy suggests that the classification implies a biological affinity, whereas in fact form classification is about giving a name to a group of morphologically-similar organisms that may not be related.

Forms as taxa

Form taxa are groupings that are based on common overall forms. Early attempts at classification of labyrinthodonts was based on skull shape (the heavily armoured skulls often being the only preserved part). The amount of convergent evolution in the many groups lead to a number of polyphyletic
A polyphyletic group is one whose members' last common ancestor is not a member of the group.For example, the group consisting of warm-blooded animals is polyphyletic, because it contains both mammals and birds, but the most recent common ancestor of mammals and birds was cold-blooded...

 taxa. Such groups are united by a common mode of life, often one that is generalist
Generalist and specialist species
A generalist species is able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and can make use of a variety of different resources . A specialist species can only thrive in a narrow range of environmental conditions or has a limited diet. Most organisms do not all fit neatly into either...

, in consequence acquiring generally similar body shapes by convergent evolution
Convergent evolution
Convergent evolution describes the acquisition of the same biological trait in unrelated lineages.The wing is a classic example of convergent evolution in action. Although their last common ancestor did not have wings, both birds and bats do, and are capable of powered flight. The wings are...

. Ediacaran biota — whether they are the precursors of the Cambrian explosion
Cambrian explosion
The Cambrian explosion or Cambrian radiation was the relatively rapid appearance, around , of most major phyla, as demonstrated in the fossil record, accompanied by major diversification of other organisms, including animals, phytoplankton, and calcimicrobes...

 of the fossil record, or are unrelated to any modern phylum — can currently only be grouped in "form taxa". Other examples include the seabirds and the "Graculavidae". The latter were initially described as the earliest family
Family (biology)
In biological classification, family is* a taxonomic rank. Other well-known ranks are life, domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, genus, and species, with family fitting between order and genus. As for the other well-known ranks, there is the option of an immediately lower rank, indicated by the...

 of Neornithes but are nowadays recognized to unite a number of unrelated early neornithine lineages, several of which probably later gave rise to the "seabird" form taxon of today.


A "parataxon", or "sciotaxon" (Gr. "shadow taxon"), is a classification based on incomplete data: for instance, the larval stage of an organism that cannot be matched up with an adult. It reflects a paucity of data that makes biological classification impossible. A sciotaxon is defined as a taxon thought to be equivalent to a true taxon (orthotaxon), but whose identity cannot be established because the two candidate taxa are preserved in different ways and thus cannot be compared directly.

Organ taxa

In paleobotany
Paleobotany, also spelled as palaeobotany , is the branch of paleontology or paleobiology dealing with the recovery and identification of plant remains from geological contexts, and their use for the biological reconstruction of past environments , and both the evolutionary history of plants, with a...

, the term is occasionally substituted for the more correct term "organ taxon", meaning a group of fossils of a particular part of a plant, such as a leaf or seed, whose parent plant is not known because the fossils were preserved unattached to the parent plant. Names given to organ taxa may only be applied to the organs in question - and cannot be extended to the entire organism. However, because a form genus is erected on morphological grounds (which do not change when its affinity is known), a form genus that can eventually be assigned to a higher biological group should not be renamed.

Whilst organ genera can potentially be assigned to a family (even if the other parts of the plant are unknown), form genera usually cannot : although they may be referrable to higher categories (e.g. "Fungi" or "Animalia").

The part of the plant is often, but not universally, indicated by the use of a suffix
In linguistics, a suffix is an affix which is placed after the stem of a word. Common examples are case endings, which indicate the grammatical case of nouns or adjectives, and verb endings, which form the conjugation of verbs...

 in the generic name:
  • wood fossils may have generic names ending in -xylon
  • leaf fossils generic names ending in -phyllum
  • fruit fossils generic names ending in -carpon, -carpum or -carpus
  • pollen fossils generic names ending in -pollis or -pollenoides.

Casual use

"Form taxon" can more casually be used to describe a wastebasket taxon: either a taxon that is not a natural (monophyletic) group but united by shared plesiomorphies, or a presumably artificial group of organisms whose true relationships are not known, being obscured by ecomorphological similarity. Well-known form taxa of this kind include "duck
Duck is the common name for a large number of species in the Anatidae family of birds, which also includes swans and geese. The ducks are divided among several subfamilies in the Anatidae family; they do not represent a monophyletic group but a form taxon, since swans and geese are not considered...

s", "fish
Fish are a paraphyletic group of organisms that consist of all gill-bearing aquatic vertebrate animals that lack limbs with digits. Included in this definition are the living hagfish, lampreys, and cartilaginous and bony fish, as well as various extinct related groups...

", "reptile
Reptiles are members of a class of air-breathing, ectothermic vertebrates which are characterized by laying shelled eggs , and having skin covered in scales and/or scutes. They are tetrapods, either having four limbs or being descended from four-limbed ancestors...

s" and "worm
The term worm refers to an obsolete taxon used by Carolus Linnaeus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck for all non-arthropod invertebrate animals, and stems from the Old English word wyrm. Currently it is used to describe many different distantly-related animals that typically have a long cylindrical...

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