Evolutionary Biology Online Journal Club

Species Concepts for Conservation – Nature 494


As if on cue, Nature published a short Correspondence letter this week which talks about the effect that species splitting is having on mammal conservation. You can read it online here (paywall, so also here).

Personally, I don’t really like it when someone says we should be stemming our research to fit political ideals, and feel that the authors are just trying to get other taxonomists to conform to their own ideas of what a species is. It is interesting to see how the Biological Species Concept is pitted against Phylogenetic Species Concepts however, and it’s clear that some people are not as open to hybrid definitions/concepts like we discussed earlier this week.

What do you think? Should we restrict changing species concepts of threatened species, or are there other ways to approach this problem without throwing taxonomy under the bus?
Zachos F.E. (2013). Taxonomy: Species splitting puts conservation at risk, Nature, 494 (7435) 35-35. DOI:


4 thoughts on “Species Concepts for Conservation – Nature 494

  1. This is great Morgan! Perhaps we can use a couple minutes of the next discussion to talk about this

  2. Well, anyone who read the comments on the last post knows I couldn’t get into the species concept conversation earlier this week. But what I would have said, and perhaps someone else did, is that is has always seemed to me (as an ecologist now trying to be an evolutionary ecologist, keep in mind) that any given species concept developed is far from immune of the taxonomic biases of the author. Of course de Queiroz argued we should see the similarity in species concepts, and not the differences, but what I wonder, is do we really need only one species concept to fit all species? I think letting go of the idea of having to have only one species concept may feel like the disciplines of biology are having an identity crisis, but maybe that’s what we need to get past this. As someone who primarily works on the sexually liberated Asteraceae and their herbivorous insects, I’ve assumed the biological species concept is really only meant for mammals (but probably more correctly for most vertebrates). The authors of this piece caution that applying an ‘If threatened species are incorrectly split into several units and managed as such…’ there could be dire consequences. But it sounds to me like what the authors are really saying is that using the phylogenetic species concept to delimit mammalian species would be applying the wrong species concept. Maybe one size doesn’t fit all?

    • Great point Chandra. I think what it comes down to is that many scientists (taxonomists included) believe/want to believe a ‘species’ to be an exact measurement that is equal across all domains of life (much like a metre is the same in physics and sprinting). But, as you pointed out and as I’m sure will come up time and time again this semester as we talk about speciation and the ‘species question’, I think the concept of a species is a fluid and malleable entity which can & does change with time/data/opinion/organism, and which will never be reduced to a single, definable definition for all life. Besides making the lives of scientists (who are conditioned to find solace in uniformity) difficult, this flexibility can create serious issues when trying to compare between different branches of the tree of life (or for conservation issues as noted in the Nature comment). I suspect this will become a running debate for the semester! 😉

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