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Nineteen new “species” of gecko? Or 19 new fundraising opportunities…?


From Michael Le Page at New Scientist:

The number of known species of geckos has just jumped upwards, with 15 new species being formally described this week.

The 19 species all live in a small area of Myanmar just 90 by 50 kilometres in size. “That’s the really amazing thing about it,” says Grismer. “They all come from such a small area.”

It’s common to find lots of closely-related species of invertebrates like snails or insects in such a small area, but it is unprecedented for a backboned animal, say Grismer. “For lizards, it is remarkable.”More.

A friend asks why no criteria are offered in the article as to how the scientists determined that the groups of lizards are separate species.

Senior Scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute Tim Standish offers in reply:

Yes, the lack of a real legal standard for a species has been a major problem here in the US. I’m not sure how many species definitions I’ve come across over the years, but not one of them really works. Maybe that is the fundamental problem, but leaving the species definition in the hands of bureaucrats and courts that have preside over cases arising from the Endangered Species Act and NEPA has to be the worst possible outcome. It is incredible that no legal definition of “species” was included in the ESA. One has to wonder whether that was done on purpose or out of stupidity. Someone, it may have been a law professor I had in graduate school, once suggested the ambiguity was on purpose to get the law through with the hope that things would work out afterwards. I’m pretty sure they haven’t.

That prof is probably right. There is little incentive to address the mess because it favours fashionable doomsaying over rigorous classification.

Consider: Once a life form is classified as a species, it is a potential source of income for activists. An industry. Anyone who can chant, carry a sign, lobby politicians, or block traffic can help Save the Planet. Billions go into save-the-planet causes in the form of grants, corporate sponsorships, tax receipts (tax avoidance), etc.

Hey, what could go wrong? Well, for one thing, we could waste effort protecting a “species” that may be a hybrid (cf the red wolf), effort better spent on protecting the parent populations.

We need a rigorous approach to speciation, ideally one based on genome mapping, to focus on conservation that matters.

Actually, nothing says “Darwin snob” like indifference to the mess that the entire concept of speciation is in. O’Leary for News

See also: Red wolf not endangered, a hybrid?

Bob O'H at 15. I've been in the news business 45 years and worked many desks. This is a familiar situation: The field is out of date. As a general rule, one of two things happens now: People who can't handle the complexity are replaced by people who can. Or the discipline stagnates. They make the news. We only write it. News
News @ 13 - quite frankly, you don't know what you're on about. For a start, we do have a rigorous system of classification, developed originally by Carl von Linné. We even have strict rules to handle disputes in nomenclature. What we don't have is a real world where a rigorous taxonomy will strictly work. Life's too complicated for that. If life is really so simple that a strict system of classification would work, then go ahead and develop one. Honestly, we'd love it if you could solve these problems. Bob O'H
the actual state of the world
Subjective dressed up as objective, Bob. Andrew asauber
Bob O'H at 12, I've been on the science beat a long time and I know inattention to a problem when I see it. I also have a pretty good idea why: A rigorous system of classification would upset quite a few applecarts at the fair. With luck, eventually, rigor is forced on such a system, after everything else - including attacking critics - has been tried. News
News - I gave one example, but the problems with defining species concepts have been discussed seriously for a long time - there are several books on the problem, as well as reviews and comments in journals such as TREE. I don't mind that you are ignorant about biology, but please don't mistake your ignorance for the actual state of the world. Bob O'H
Bob O'H at 6: A handful of events after all this time do not constitute taking a problem of this size seriously enough. But the nice thing about a forward moving cosmos is that events will overtake these people and speed up the wheelbarrow a bit. News
Bob O'H:
...are you aware of the issues about defining what a gene is?
Yes. Another reason evolutionary theory is incoherent. Mung
LoL! Most evolutionary biologists are a bit of a git, especially those who promote blind watchmaker evolution. Well they are more than a bit of a git... ET
ET - Linnaeus is still well respected by biologists, even evolutionary biologists. If we have any problems with him, it's because he was a bit of git, not because he was a creationist. Bob O'H
Bob O'H:
There is a huge incentive to clear up species concepts – if you can do it, you’ll make your name, and be up there amongst people like Linnaeus.
Linnaeus was a Creationist and Creationists don't have a good name among evolutionary biologists. Look taxonomists call organisms who can interbreed a different species. So there really isn't a good definition of the concept. ET
News - are you aware of the issues about defining what a gene is? I also take it you haven't met many taxonomists, which is why it's so easy for you to be dismissive of them. As a group they are, if nothing else, rigorous (I've worked in a museum, so I have met quite a few of them). The comment "They just don’t even talk about it." is just nonsense. Exhibit (s) is Jim Mallet recently being invited to the Senckenberg (one of the largest natural history museums in the world) to talk about precisely this. Bob O'H
Bob O'H at 2, genetics can be inherently messy at the edges too but it isn't anywhere this big a mess. Well, we can leave it to the activists, pro and con, or develop more uniform science criteria. The latter would position our ecology efforts to make more difference. I don't, for a minute, believe that taxonomists are truly anxious to clear up the mess. Any actual rigor would undermine much of what various individuals among them. Each one's actual interest lies in doing nothing so the collective interest is for doing nothing. As we see from the article referenced. They just don't even talk about it. News
polistra - but overhunting isn't a big problem for most species. Climate change and habitat loss are bigger problems (in general - different species suffer different risks). We can affect both of these, e.g. by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and by controlling land use (e.g. through the extension of nature reserves). Bob O'H
The "endangered" "species" lawyers have already worked around the question of species. They work to "protect" a subpopulation in a certain place, without even asking about its genetic identity. The best solution is to abandon those laws entirely. Even by Darwinian standards they're counterproductive. When we try to prop up a subpopulation that is fading on its own, we ruin natural selection. What we CAN do, and what we WERE DOING for a long time before these crazy laws, is to avoid overhunting and overfishing. Those are the only processes we can control. polistra
There is little incentive to address the mess because it favours fashionable doomsaying over rigorous classification.
Well, you haven't met many taxonomists, have you? There is a huge incentive to clear up species concepts - if you can do it, you'll make your name, and be up there amongst people like Linnaeus. I'm not sure there is any ultimate solution to the concept of what a species is - I can't see how it cannot be messy at the edges, given what we know about the speciation process. Bob O'H
...but it is unprecedented for a backboned animal, say Grismer. For lizards, it is remarkable. Except when it isn't. https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520269842 http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/origin-species-lizards-evolutionary-tree Adaptive radiation, which results when a single ancestral species gives rise to many descendants, each adapted to a different part of the environment, is possibly the single most important source of biological diversity in the living world. One of the best-studied examples involves Caribbean Anolis lizards. With about 400 species, Anolis has played an important role in the development of ecological theory and has become a model system exemplifying the integration of ecological, evolutionary, and behavioral studies to understand evolutionary diversification. etc. etc. Mung

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