Species. We take them for granted as the main currency of biodiversity. But how many of us really know what species are? And do we attach too much importance to them, especially in the context of conservation? Over centuries, taxonomists have categorized and re-categorized life forms and graphically presented their relatedness in the form of a so-called ”tree of life”. The trunk of the tree is common to all life on Earth. It branches into major “taxa” like the “kingdoms” of plants, animals and fungi, and then continues branching into increasingly more specific taxa (phylum, class, order, family, genus, etc.) until, near the branch tips, are species and subspecies. The more specific the classification, the less obvious it is where to draw the line between one taxon and another, or between different levels of taxa. Taxonomy, it turns out, is as much an art as it is a science. In this episode Frank Zachos does an excellent job at explaining taxonomy, and the ways in which it is misunderstood, and he embellishes his explanations with a wealth of fascinating examples. Frank is head of the mammal collection at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, and affiliated professor at the Department of Genetics at UFS, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has written well over 100 articles and other publications on taxonomy and related topics.
Timestamps 02:15 What are species and what’s involved in classifying them? 07:30 Ring species 09:35 Species concepts 14:12 The spectrum of species classification tendencies, from “lumping” to “splitting” 17:45 How important is it to determine the best species concept? 23:38 Are conservationists misusing species as a tool? 25:28 What is a subspecies? 26:54 How many species are there really? 32:52 How can we conserve without using species as a unit of coservation? 35:48 Do we need more taxonomists? 39:01 Classifying the Loch Ness Monster 40:27 A real-world example of how species status can be worth billions of dollars 42:52 How have recent technological advances helped, or not helped, taxonomy?
Links to resources
Naming the Loch Ness Monster - 1975 paper in the journal, "Nature", which we discussed during the episode