For the linguistic term, see Phylum (linguistics).
For the plant, see Phyla (genus).

Phylum (plural: phyla) is a taxon used in the scientific classification of life. "Phyla" is adopted from the Greek phylai, the clan-based voting groups in Greek city-states. Phyla represent the largest generally accepted groupings of animals and other living things with certain evolutionary traits, although the phyla themselves may sometimes be grouped into superphyla (e.g. Ecdysozoa with eight phyla, including arthropods and roundworms; and Deuterostomia with the echinoderms, chordates, hemichordates and arrow worms). Informally, phyla can be thought of as grouping animals based on general body plan[1], e.g., having bones vs. having an exoskeleton. This is morphological grouping. But despite the seemingly different external appearances of organisms, they are classified into phyla based on their internal organizations[2]. 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 humans belong to. Although there are approximately 35 phyla, these nine include the majority of the species. Many phyla are exclusively marine, and only one phylum is entirely absent from the world's oceans: the Onychophora or velvet worms. The most recently discovered phylum is Cycliophora[3] found in 1993; only three phyla were discovered in the last century.

The Cambrian explosion was a great flowering of life forms that occurred between roughly 542 and 530 million years ago; during this time all modern phyla (and many now-extinct ones) were established.[4] Over time the roles among different phyla have varied. For instance, during the Cambrian, the dominant megafauna, or large animals, were arthropods whereas now they are vertebrates (chordata).[5]

Scientific classification describes the following levels of organization (taxons) for classifying life forms: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Subspecies. Thus Phylum is a rather broad classification. Also, the Three Domain System is now widely used and adds the level of Domain above Kingdom as the broadest classification.

List of animal phyla

Phylum Meaning Common name Distinguishing characteristics Species described
Acanthocephala Thorny head Thorny-headed worms Reversible spiny proboscis about 1,150
Acoelomorpha Without gut No mouth or alimentary canal
Annelida Little ring Segmented worms Multiple circular segments about 15,000 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 63,000+
Cnidaria Stinging nettle Coelenterates Nematocysts (stinging cells) about 10,000
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 Sea Urchins Five-fold radial symmetry, mesodermal calcified spines about 7,000 living species and 13,000 extinct ones
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 450
Gnathostomulida Jaw orifice Jaw worms
Hemichordata Half cord Acorn worms Stomochord in collar 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 21
Micrognathozoa Tiny jaw animals Accordion like extensible thorax 1
Mollusca Thin shell Mollusks / molluscs Muscular foot and mantle round shell about 70,000 [4]
Myxozoa Slime animals Polar capsules resembling nematocysts at least 12,000
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 1200
Onychophora Claw bearer Velvet worms Legs tipped by chitinous claws about 110 modern
Orthonectida Straight swim about 20
Phoronida Zeus' mistress Horseshoe worms U-shaped gut 20
Placozoa Tubular animals 1
Platyhelminthes Flat worms Flat worms about 25,000
Porifera Pore bearer Sponges Perforated interior wall over 5,000 modern
Priapulida Penis Priapulid worms Retractable proboscis surrounded by papillae 17
Rhombozoa Lozenge animal Single axial cell surrounded by ciliated cells 75
Rotifera Wheel bearer Rotifers Anterior crown of cilia about 2000
Sipuncula Small tube Peanut worms Mouth surrounded by invertible tentacles 144-320
Tardigrada Slow step Water bears Four segmented body and head about 750
Xenoturbellida Strange flatworm Ciliated deuterostome 2
TOTAL 2,400,000+

Groups formerly ranked as phyla

Name as phylum Common name Current consensus
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.
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.

List of plant divisions

Division Meaning Common name Distinguishing characteristics
Anthophyta Flower plant Flowering plants Producing flowers and fruit (or close relatives)
Bryophyta Moss plants Mosses & Worts Diploid spores, no vascular system
Pteridophyta Fern plants Ferns Diploid spores and vascular system
Pinophyta Sap/pitch plants Conifers Cones containing seeds
Sphenophyta Wedge plant Horsetails Photosynthetic, hollow, jointed and ridged stems
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

List of fungi divisions

Phylum Meaning Common name Distinguishing characteristics
Chytridiomycota Little pot mushroom Chytrids Cellulose in cell walls, flagellated gametes
Deuteromycota Second mushroom Imperfect fungi Only reproduce asexually
Zygomycota Yoke 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 None Produce spores from a 'basidium'


  1. Valentine, James W. (2004). On the Origin of Phyla. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 7. 0226845486."Classifications of organisms in hierarchical systems were in use by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. usually organisms were grouped according to their 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."
  2. Parker, Andrew (2003). In the blink of an eye: How vision kick-started the big bang of evolution. Sydney: Free Press, 1-4. 0743257332."The job of an evolutionary biologist is to 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."
  3. "...when a new animal species is discovered, no matter how unusual, it can normally be classified into a known group of creatures with the same body plan or phylum. Although there are 1.5 million plus known species in the world, they can all be classified into 35 or so phyla. These include the chordates (eg the vertebrates such as man), molluscs (snails) and arthropods (jointed limbed e.g. insects). However, S.pandora was so unusual that it could not be classified into any of the existing phyla, and a new one was suggested called Cycliophora" [1] (URL accessed on July 5, 2006)
  4. "Compared with the 30 or so extant phyla, some people estimate that the Cambrian explosion may have generated as many as 100. The evolutionary innovation of the Precambrian/Cambrian boundary had clearly been extremely broad." [2] (URL accessed on July 5, 2006)
  5. "The Cambrian Explosion ... The organisms range from the prokaryotic cyanobacteria to eukaryotic green and red algae, to sponges, brachiopods, priapulids, annelids, and many different arthropod groups, as well as echinoderms and possibly one of the first chordates." [3] (URL accessed on July 5, 2006)

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