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Researchers: Genomic tools inflate claimed species numbers

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blurred boundaries lead to overestimates/John Megahan

From Science Daily:

Lacey Knowles and Jeet Sukumaran investigated the accuracy of inferences made by a mathematical model widely used to quickly determine the boundaries between species without the time-consuming, painstaking process of comparing specimens in museum collections.

They found that the genetic approach, formally known as the multispecies coalescent model, can lead to species estimates that are five to 13 times higher than the true numbers.

Because the species is the fundamental unit for all evolutionary and ecological studies, their findings are expected to have wide-ranging implications, from biodiversity studies to conservation planning. Their results are scheduled for online publication Jan. 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is an area that has really taken off over the last decade. On its surface, the genomic approach looks like a panacea because it’s very fast and doesn’t require any kind of taxonomic expertise,” said Knowles, a professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and curator of insects at the university’s Museum of Zoology.

“So it’s been promoted as a way to speed up inventories of biodiversity by combining the automation of genomics with the statistical power of these models. The only problem is, this method is not doing what we think it is doing, resulting in an overestimate of species numbers.” Paper. (paywall) – Jeet Sukumaran and L. Lacey Knowles. Multispecies coalescent delimits structure, not species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2017 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1607921114
More.

Overestimates of species can lead to waste of time and resources. For example, in a fragile ecology, are ten species endangered or 100? How can we hope for reasonable conservation strategies if we do not even have a good sense of orders of magnitude?

In general, the concept of “species” is such a mess these days, it seems a shame to add to the confusion.

See also: Nothing says “Darwin snob” like indifference to the mess that the entire concept of speciation is in.

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