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Taxonomy – Definition, Hierarchy, Example, Importance

What is Taxonomy?

  • Taxonomy, rooted in the Greek words τάξις (taxis) meaning ‘arrangement’ and -νομία (-nomia) signifying ‘method’, represents a pivotal branch of biology dedicated to the systematic classification of living entities.
  • This scientific discipline focuses on naming, defining, and categorizing organisms based on shared attributes, leading to the formation of hierarchical structures known as taxonomic ranks.
  • These ranks, ranging from broad to specific classifications, encompass domain, kingdom, phylum (or division in botanical contexts), class, order, family, genus, and species.
  • The inception of taxonomy can be attributed to the 18th-century Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, who is often heralded as the progenitor of contemporary taxonomic systems.
  • Linnaeus introduced the binomial nomenclature, a unique method of assigning a two-part name (genus and species) to each organism. Furthermore, he laid the foundation for the taxonomic hierarchy, a structured system that has since evolved but retains its fundamental principles.
  • Modern taxonomy has undergone significant transformations, especially with the advent of advanced biological systematics, data acquisition, and analytical technologies.
  • The primary objective now extends beyond mere classification; it aims to delineate the evolutionary interrelationships among both extant and extinct organisms. Consequently, the traditional Linnaean system has metamorphosed into a more dynamic framework that encapsulates the intricate web of life’s evolutionary history.

History of Taxonomy

Taxonomy, the science of classifying living organisms, has evolved significantly since its inception. The journey of taxonomy traces back to ancient civilizations, undergoing various transformations through the ages, influenced by the works of numerous scholars and the advent of scientific methodologies.

Ancient Beginnings: The earliest inklings of taxonomy can be found in the records of ancient Egypt, where depictions of medicinal plants adorned the walls, showcasing the efforts of early Egyptian taxonomists. However, the formalized process of classification began with the Greek philosopher Aristotle. During his time on the Island of Lesbos, Aristotle embarked on the first-ever attempt to classify organisms. He divided living beings into two primary categories: plants and animals. His classifications, based on observable characteristics such as the number of legs or the presence of blood, laid the foundation for future taxonomic endeavors. Notably, some of the classifications proposed by Aristotle, like Anhaima (invertebrates) and Enhaima (vertebrates), remain relevant today.

Aristotle’s student, Theophrastus, furthered this work by documenting around 500 plant species and their uses in his book, “Historia Plantarum.” Several plant groups identified by Theophrastus, including Cornus, Crocus, and Narcissus, are still recognized in modern taxonomy.

Medieval Insights: The Middle Ages saw taxonomy being approached from a philosophical perspective. Scholars like Thomas Aquinas and Demetrios leaned heavily on Aristotelian systems, such as the Scala Naturae, to classify organisms. The predominant concept of this era was the “Great Chain of Being,” which sought to place all living beings on a hierarchical ladder.

Renaissance and Beyond: The Renaissance period marked significant advancements in taxonomy. Andrea Cesalpino, an Italian physician, described approximately 1500 plant species in his book “Magnum Opus De Plantis.” His classifications, especially of the Asteraceae and Brassicaceae families, are still in use today.

The 17th century witnessed John Ray’s monumental contributions to taxonomy. He meticulously described over 18,000 plant species in “Methodus Plantarum Nova,” introducing a more intricate classification system based on multiple characteristics. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort further refined this system by classifying 9000 species into 698 genera in his work “Institutiones Rei Herbariae.”

The Linnaean Revolution: Arguably the most influential figure in the history of taxonomy is Carl Linnaeus. His Linnaean System revolutionized the field by introducing a binomial naming system, which standardized the classification of plant and animal species. Linnaeus’s works, including “Systema Naturae” and “Species Plantarum,” provided a comprehensive framework for taxonomy, categorizing organisms based on classes, orders, genera, and species. This system, though refined over the years, remains the foundation of modern taxonomy.

The history of taxonomy is a testament to humanity’s innate curiosity about the natural world. From ancient Egyptian depictions to Linnaeus’s systematic classifications, taxonomy has continually evolved, shaped by the contributions of countless scholars and the ever-expanding boundaries of scientific knowledge.

Definition of Taxonomy

Taxonomy is the scientific discipline concerned with the naming, defining, and classifying of living organisms based on shared characteristics, forming a hierarchical structure of categories known as taxonomic ranks.

Different definitions of taxonomy

Taxonomy, a foundational pillar in the realm of biology, has been defined and interpreted in various ways by experts throughout the years. This multifaceted discipline encompasses a range of processes and methodologies, each contributing to our understanding of the classification and organization of living organisms. Here are several perspectives on the definition of taxonomy:

  1. Enghoff & Seberg (2006): Taxonomy is a comprehensive discipline that integrates seven distinct processes. These include the description, naming, recognition, and classification of taxa, along with the study of genetic variation, specimen identification, and the delineation of taxa within ecosystems.
  2. Judd et al. (2007): From this viewpoint, taxonomy is the systematic practice of categorizing organisms into species, further organizing these species into broader groups, and assigning appropriate nomenclature to these groups, resulting in a structured classification.
  3. Simpson (2010): Taxonomy is delineated as a scientific domain that encompasses units of systematics. This domain is responsible for the identification, description, classification, and nomenclature of organisms.
  4. Lawrence (2005): This definition emphasizes the analytical aspect of taxonomy, describing it as the study that examines individual characteristics to classify them appropriately.
  5. Walker (1988): Taxonomy is portrayed as the scientific exploration of classifying living entities and the formulation of species, and conversely, the breakdown of species.
  6. Kirk et al. (2008): In this perspective, taxonomy in biology is succinctly defined as the systematic arrangement of organisms into a structured classification.

While these definitions provide varied insights into the essence of taxonomy, it’s evident that there’s an underlying theme of classification, organization, and nomenclature. However, it’s crucial to note that some experts view taxonomy as a subset of systematics or even equate the two. This has led to debates and discussions in the scientific community. For clarity, systematics can be defined as:

  • Systematics: This discipline focuses on the identification of organisms’ taxonomy, their nomenclature, classification based on natural relationships, and the study of variation and evolution among different taxa.

In essence, while taxonomy primarily deals with classification, systematics offers a broader perspective, encompassing evolutionary relationships and variations among taxa.

Who are taxonomists?

  • Taxonomists are specialized biologists dedicated to the study and classification of organisms based on shared characteristics and evolutionary histories.
  • Their primary role is to discern the intricate relationships among various organisms and systematically organize them into coherent categories. For example, an entomological taxonomist would delve into the intricate relationships among diverse types of flies, discerning their similarities and differences, and subsequently grouping them under a unified category.
  • Through their meticulous research and analysis, taxonomists play a pivotal role in enhancing our understanding of the vast biodiversity that exists in the natural world.

Taxonomic characters

Taxonomic characters represent specific attributes employed in taxonomy to deduce the relationships, or phylogeny, among taxa. These characters serve as evidence, aiding in the classification and understanding of the evolutionary connections between different organisms. The diverse range of taxonomic characters includes:

  1. Morphological Characters:
    • General external morphology, detailing the outward appearance of organisms.
    • Specialized structures, such as genitalia.
    • Internal morphology, which pertains to anatomy.
    • Embryological developments.
    • Karyology and other cellular factors.
  2. Physiological Characters:
    • Metabolic attributes.
    • Secretions produced by the body.
    • Factors leading to genic sterility.
  3. Molecular Characters:
    • Immunological distances between species.
    • Electrophoretic variations.
    • Amino acid configurations in proteins.
    • DNA hybridization techniques.
    • Sequences of DNA and RNA.
    • Analyses using restriction endonucleases.
    • Other molecular distinctions.
  4. Behavioral Characters:
    • Courtship behaviors and other ethological isolating mechanisms.
    • Various behavioral patterns.
  5. Ecological Characters:
    • Habitual behaviors and habitats.
    • Dietary preferences.
    • Seasonal adaptations and variations.
    • Relationships between parasites and their hosts.
  6. Geographic Characters:
    • Broad biogeographic distribution patterns.
    • Relationships between populations, whether they coexist (sympatric) or are geographically separated (allopatric).

In essence, taxonomic characters offer a comprehensive toolkit for scientists to discern the intricate relationships among taxa, ensuring a systematic and informed approach to biological classification.

Overview of the Taxonomic Hierarchy

Taxonomy, the science of classification, plays a pivotal role in organizing the vast diversity of life into structured categories. This hierarchical system ensures that each organism is systematically categorized based on shared characteristics and evolutionary relationships. The following elucidates the hierarchical levels in taxonomy:

Overview of the Taxonomic Hierarchy
Overview of the Taxonomic Hierarchy | Image Credit: Peter Halasz. (User:Pengo), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Domain: Situated at the apex of the taxonomic hierarchy, the domain is the broadest classification level. It demarcates the three primary domains of life.
  2. Kingdom: Subsequent to the domain, the kingdom is the next broadest level. Currently, five distinct kingdoms are recognized in taxonomy.
  3. Phylum: This rank encompasses groups of classes that share certain defining characteristics.
  4. Class: Within each phylum, organisms are further classified into classes based on more specific shared traits.
  5. Order: Each class is subdivided into orders, which group families based on additional commonalities.
  6. Family: Delving deeper into the hierarchy, families consist of multiple genera that exhibit a set of shared characteristics.
  7. Genus: A genus comprises species that are closely related and share a common lineage.
  8. Species: The most specific rank in the hierarchy, a species represents a group of organisms that are highly similar and capable of interbreeding.

In essence, the taxonomic hierarchy serves as a structured framework, facilitating the systematic categorization of organisms from the most general to the most specific. This system underscores the interconnectedness of life and provides insights into the evolutionary relationships among diverse life forms.

The Taxonomic Hierarchy

Taxonomy, the scientific discipline of classifying organisms, has evolved over centuries to provide a structured system that categorizes life forms based on shared characteristics and evolutionary lineage. This hierarchical framework, from the broadest to the most specific, is essential for understanding the relationships and distinctions among the myriad forms of life on Earth.

  1. Domain: Introduced to the taxonomic hierarchy in 1990, the domain is the most encompassing rank. It segregates life into three primary domains: Eukaryota, Archaea, and Bacteria. Eukaryota includes most organisms except bacteria and archaeons, with the latter two being evolutionarily distinct yet closely related.
  2. Kingdom: Initially, life was bifurcated into Animalia and Plantae. However, advancements in microscopy and research led to the identification of five kingdoms, which subsequently expanded to seven. These kingdoms are Animalia, Plantae, Monera, Fungi, Chromista, Protozoa, and Archaea. Each kingdom represents a unique set of characteristics and evolutionary traits.
  3. Phylum: Positioned below the kingdom, the phylum delineates organisms based on more specific shared attributes. Currently, numerous phyla are recognized across various kingdoms, with each phylum grouping related classes.
  4. Class: A more refined categorization than phylum, the class groups organisms that share a set of distinctive features. For instance, in the animal kingdom, classes such as Mammalia, Aves, and Reptilia are recognized.
  5. Order: Within each class, organisms are further categorized into orders based on additional shared characteristics. For example, the Mammalia class comprises orders like Primates and Carnivora.
  6. Family: Delving deeper, the family rank groups related genera. Within the Carnivora order, families like Canidae (encompassing dogs and wolves) and Felidae (comprising cats) are identified.
  7. Genus: The genus is a critical rank in taxonomy, especially in binomial nomenclature, where each species is designated by two names: the genus and the species. The genus name is always capitalized and italicized.
  8. Species: The most specific rank in the hierarchy, species represent populations of organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. The species name, when combined with the genus, provides a unique scientific name for each organism.

In summation, the taxonomic hierarchy is a systematic approach to categorize the vast diversity of life. Each rank in this hierarchy offers a more detailed understanding of an organism’s evolutionary history and relationships with other life forms. As scientific knowledge advances, this classification system will continue to evolve, reflecting a more nuanced understanding of the intricacies of life.

Classification Systems

In the realm of biology, classification systems serve as structured frameworks that facilitate the understanding of the vast diversity of life forms. These systems are pivotal in discerning the similarities and differences among various organisms. Over the years, the evolution of these systems has been marked by increasing complexity and precision, reflecting the advancements in scientific understanding.

  1. The Two-Kingdom Classification System: Historically, organisms were primarily categorized into two kingdoms: Animalia and Plantae. Within this system, Kingdom Plantae encompassed organisms that synthesized their own food from inorganic materials, termed as autotrophs. In contrast, Kingdom Animalia consisted of heterotrophs, organisms that rely on autotrophs for their nutritional needs. However, this binary classification faced challenges. For instance, certain organisms like bacteria, fungi, and algae were grouped under Plantae, a placement that was later contested due to emerging scientific insights. The ambiguity surrounding organisms like Euglena, which exhibited both plant-like and animal-like characteristics, further underscored the limitations of this system.
  2. The Three-Kingdom Classification System: To address the aforementioned ambiguities, Ernst Hackel introduced a third kingdom in 1866, named Protista. This kingdom was designed to accommodate organisms like Euglena, which did not fit neatly into the existing two kingdoms. Additionally, bacteria were also incorporated into Protista. However, the placement of fungi within Plantae remained a point of contention, as fungi, despite their plant-like appearance, are heterotrophic and possess chitin in their cell walls.
  3. The Five-Kingdom Classification System: The distinction between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells became a focal point in the development of a more refined classification system. E. Chatton, in 1937, introduced the terms “procariotique” for bacteria and “eucaritique” for plant and animal cells. Building on this foundation, Robert Whittaker proposed the five-kingdom classification system in 1967. This system was predicated on cellular organization levels and modes of nutrition. Consequently, organisms were classified into five distinct kingdoms: Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia. Margulis and Schwartz further refined this system in 1988. The most recent iteration of this system saw the division of the Protista kingdom, reflecting the ever-evolving nature of taxonomic classifications.

In conclusion, the journey of biological classification systems underscores the dynamic nature of scientific understanding. As research continues to unveil the intricacies of life, classification systems will undoubtedly continue to evolve, offering clearer insights into the relationships and distinctions among the myriad forms of life on Earth.

Examples of Taxonomy

Taxonomy, the scientific discipline of classifying organisms, employs a hierarchical system to categorize life forms based on shared characteristics. To elucidate this concept, let’s delve into specific examples:

Human Taxonomy
Human Taxonomy
  1. Human Taxonomy:
    • Domain: Eukaryota – This signifies that humans have cells with a nucleus enclosed within membranes.
    • Kingdom: Animalia – Humans are multicellular eukaryotic organisms that obtain nutrients through consumption.
    • Phylum: Chordata – This phylum encompasses animals with a notochord, a dorsal hollow nerve cord, and pharyngeal slits at some stage in their life.
    • Class: Mammalia – Humans, like other mammals, possess mammary glands, hair, and three middle ear bones.
    • Order: Primates – This order includes mammals with large brains, forward-facing eyes, and grasping hands.
    • Family: Hominidae – Often referred to as the “great apes,” this family includes humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.
    • Genus: Homo – This genus comprises modern humans and their close extinct relatives.
    • Species: sapiens – This species designation refers specifically to modern humans.
  2. Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris):
    • Domain: Eukaryota – Tigers, like all animals, have cells with a nucleus enclosed within membranes.
    • Kingdom: Animalia – Tigers are multicellular eukaryotic organisms that derive nutrients through consumption.
    • Phylum: Chordata – Tigers, being vertebrates, fall under this phylum which includes animals possessing a notochord.
    • Class: Mammalia – Tigers have mammary glands, hair, and three middle ear bones, characteristic of mammals.
    • Order: Carnivora – This order comprises mammals that primarily consume meat.
    • Family: Felidae – This family encompasses cats, from domesticated cats to large wild cats.
    • Genus: Panthera – This genus includes the big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars.
    • Species: tigris – Referring to the tiger species.
    • Subspecies: tigris – Denoting the Bengal subspecies of the tiger.
  3. Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus):
    • Domain: Eukaryota – Sunflowers have cells with a nucleus enclosed within membranes.
    • Kingdom: Plantae – Sunflowers are multicellular, photosynthetic organisms.
    • Phylum: Magnoliophyta (or Angiosperms) – This phylum includes all flowering plants.
    • Class: Magnoliopsida (or Dicotyledons) – Sunflowers belong to the dicots, which typically have two embryonic leaves or cotyledons.
    • Order: Asterales – This order includes plants with compound flowers.
    • Family: Asteraceae (or Compositae) – Known as the aster, daisy, or sunflower family.
    • Genus: Helianthus – This genus comprises plants commonly known as sunflowers.
    • Species: annuus – Referring to the annual sunflower species.
  4. Red Fox Taxonomy:
    • The red fox, known scientifically as Vulpes vulpes, serves as another illustrative example. Notably, in some instances, the genus and species names might be identical, though they represent distinct taxonomic ranks.
The major ranks: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species, applied to the red fox, Vulpes vulpes.
The major ranks: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species, applied to the red fox, Vulpes vulpes.  | Image Credit: Annina BreenCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To aid in the retention of the sequence of taxonomic ranks, various mnemonic devices have been devised. One such mnemonic is: “Dear King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti,” where each initial letter corresponds to a rank, starting from Domain and culminating in Species. This mnemonic encapsulates the essence of the taxonomic hierarchy, providing a structured approach to understanding the intricate web of life on Earth.

Importance of Taxonomy

Taxonomy, the science of classifying and naming living organisms, holds a pivotal role in the realm of biology and beyond. Its significance can be understood through the following points:

  1. Understanding Biodiversity: Taxonomy allows scientists to catalog and comprehend the immense diversity of life on Earth. By classifying organisms, we can estimate the number of species in a particular region or globally, aiding in biodiversity studies.
  2. Establishing Relationships: Through taxonomy, we can understand the evolutionary relationships between organisms. By studying these relationships, scientists can trace the evolutionary history of species and determine how different organisms are related to one another.
  3. Facilitating Communication: A standardized naming system ensures that scientists across the globe refer to the same organism in the same way, eliminating confusion. The binomial nomenclature system, where each species is given a unique two-part name (genus and species), ensures clarity in scientific communication.
  4. Aiding in Conservation: Understanding the taxonomy of organisms can help in conservation efforts. By identifying and classifying species, especially those that are endangered or rare, appropriate conservation strategies can be developed.
  5. Supporting Medical Research: Many organisms, including plants, fungi, and bacteria, have medicinal properties. Taxonomy aids in the identification and classification of these organisms, facilitating research into their potential medicinal uses.
  6. Enhancing Agricultural Practices: Taxonomy helps in the classification of crops and livestock. This knowledge is crucial for breeding programs, pest control, and understanding plant diseases, ultimately leading to improved agricultural practices.
  7. Bioinformatics and Genomic Research: In the age of genomics, taxonomy plays a crucial role in organizing and interpreting genetic data. As more species are sequenced, understanding their taxonomic relationships becomes essential for comparative genomics.
  8. Ecological Studies: Taxonomy aids ecologists in studying community structures, interactions, and ecosystem functions. By understanding the species present in an ecosystem, scientists can infer the roles they play and how they interact with each other.
  9. Biogeography and Evolution: Taxonomy is fundamental in biogeographical studies, helping scientists understand the distribution of species across different regions and how geographical barriers have influenced evolutionary paths.
  10. Cultural and Economic Significance: Many societies value particular species for cultural or economic reasons. Taxonomy aids in the identification and classification of such species, ensuring they are recognized and conserved.

In essence, taxonomy is not just about naming and classifying organisms. It’s a foundational science that intersects with various disciplines, providing insights and knowledge that drive research, conservation, and understanding of the natural world.


Which of the following is the highest taxonomic rank?
a) Kingdom
b) Phylum
c) Domain
d) Class

Who is known as the father of modern taxonomy?
a) Charles Darwin
b) Gregor Mendel
c) Carl Linnaeus
d) Robert Hooke

Which taxonomic rank comes immediately after Order?
a) Class
b) Family
c) Genus
d) Species

The scientific name for humans is:
a) Homo erectus
b) Homo sapiens
c) Pan troglodytes
d) Pongo pygmaeus

Which of the following is NOT a domain in the taxonomic hierarchy?
a) Protista
b) Bacteria
c) Archaea
d) Eukaryota

The binomial nomenclature system uses which two taxonomic ranks to name an organism?
a) Family and Genus
b) Genus and Species
c) Order and Family
d) Class and Order

Which taxonomic rank is more specific than Class but less specific than Order?
a) Phylum
b) Kingdom
c) Family
d) Genus

In the name Panthera tigris, what does “Panthera” represent?
a) Species
b) Family
c) Genus
d) Order

Which of the following is the correct sequence of taxonomic ranks from the most general to the most specific?
a) Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species
b) Domain, Kingdom, Order, Class, Phylum, Family, Genus, Species
c) Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species
d) Kingdom, Domain, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

Which taxonomic rank is represented by the initial letter in the mnemonic “Dear King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti”?
a) Domain
b) Division
c) Class
d) Genus


What is taxonomy?

Taxonomy is the science of classifying and naming living organisms into groups based on shared characteristics.

Who is considered the father of modern taxonomy?

Carl Linnaeus is regarded as the father of modern taxonomy due to his development of the binomial nomenclature system.

What is binomial nomenclature?

Binomial nomenclature is the system of naming species using two terms: the genus name followed by the species name, both usually in Latin.

How many domains of life are there?

There are three recognized domains of life: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryota.

What is the difference between a genus and a species?

A genus is a taxonomic rank that groups together species with similar characteristics, while a species is the most specific taxonomic rank representing a single type of organism.

Why is taxonomy important?

Taxonomy is crucial for organizing the vast diversity of life on Earth, facilitating research, conservation efforts, and understanding evolutionary relationships.

How is a new species officially named and recognized?

A new species is named following the rules of binomial nomenclature and is officially recognized after peer review and publication in a scientific journal.

What is the difference between taxonomy and systematics?

While taxonomy deals with the classification and naming of organisms, systematics is concerned with studying the evolutionary relationships between organisms.

Can the classification of an organism change?

Yes, with advancements in research and technology, especially molecular biology, the classification of organisms can be revised to reflect more accurate evolutionary relationships.

What is a phylogenetic tree?

A phylogenetic tree is a diagram that depicts the evolutionary relationships among various species or other entities based on their genetic or morphological data.


  1. Judd, W.S., Campbell, C.S., Kellogg, E.A., Stevens, P.F., & Donoghue, M.J. (2007). Taxonomy. In Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach (3rd ed.). Sinauer Associates.
  2. Enghoff, H. (2009). What is taxonomy? An overview with myriapodological examples. Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken, 1864-6417.
  3. Kirk, P.M., Cannon, P.F., Minter, D.W., & Stalpers, J.A. (Eds.). (2008). Taxonomy. In Dictionary of the Fungi (10th ed.). CABI.
  4. Lawrence, E. (2005). Henderson’s Dictionary Of Biology. Pearson/Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-127384-9.
  5. Manktelow, M. (2010). History of Taxonomy. Dept. of Systematic Biology, Uppsala University. Archived from the original on 29 May 2015.
  6. Wilkins, J.S. (2011, February 5). What is systematics and what is taxonomy? Archived from the original on 27 August 2016.
  7. Simpson, M.G. (2010). Plant Systematics: an Overview. In Plant Systematics (2nd ed.). Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-374380-0.
  8. Walker, P.M.B. (Ed.). (1988). The Wordsworth Dictionary of Science and Technology. W.R. Chambers Ltd. and Cambridge University Press.

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What is a digital colony counter? Why do Laboratory incubators need CO2? What is Karyotyping? What are the scope of Microbiology? What is DNA Library? What is Simple Staining? What is Negative Staining? What is Western Blot? What are Transgenic Plants? Breakthrough Discovery: Crystal Cells in Fruit Flies Key to Oxygen Transport
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