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Species consists of individual organisms.
Species is one of the basic units of biological classification. A usable definition of the word "species" and reliable methods of identifying particular species are essential for stating and testing biological theories and for measuring biodiversity. A species consists of individual organisms which are very similar in appearance, anatomy, physiology and genetics due to having relatively recent common ancestors. Traditionally, multiple examples of a proposed species must be studied for unifying characters before it can be regarded as a species.
The commonly used names for types of animal in English and many other languages often do not correspond to species. For example: dogs are a sub-species of wolf; but the word "deer" refers to a family of 34 species, such as the Red Deer and Mule Deer. (see the diagram at the side for classification of species. - A genus contains one or more species, etc.)
Binomial convention for naming species.
In Scientific classification, a species is assigned a two-part name, treated as Latin. The genus is listed first (with its leading letter capitalized), followed by a second term. For example, gray wolves belong to the species Canis lupus, coyotes to Canis latrans, golden jackals to Canis aureus, etc.; and all of these belong to the genus Canis (which also contains many other species). The name of the species is the whole binomial, not just the second term (which may be called specific name for animals).
Books and articles sometimes intentionally do not identify species fully and use the abbreviation "sp." in the singular or "spp." in the plural in the place of the specific epithet, for example Canis sp. This commonly occurs in the following types of situation:
In books and articles which use the Latin alphabet, genus and species names are usually printed in italics.
The binomial naming convention, later formalized in the biological codes of nomenclature, was first used by Leonhart Fuchs and introduced as the standard by Carolus Linnaeus in the 1700s and as a result is sometimes called the "binomial nomenclature". At this time, the chief biological theory was that species represented independent acts of creation by God, and were therefore considered objectively real and immutable.
Difficulty of defining "species" and identifying particular species
It is surprisingly difficult to define the word "species" in a way that applies to all naturally occurring organisms, and the debate among biologists about how to define "species" and how to identify actual species is called the species problem.
Most textbooks define a species as all the individual organisms of a natural population that generally interbreed at maturity in the wild and whose interbreeding produces fertile offspring. Various parts of this definition are there to exclude some unusual or artificial matings:
Difficulties in defining "species" for living organisms
The typical textbook definition (above) works well for most multi-celled organisms, but there are several types of situations where it breaks down:
Horizontal gene transfer makes it even more difficult to define the word "species". There is strong evidence of horizontal gene transfer between very dissimilar groups of procaryotes, and possibly between dissimilar groups of single-celled eucaryotes; and Williamson argues that there is evidence for it in some crustaceans and echinoderms. All definitions of the word "species" assume that an organism gets all its genes from one or two parents which are very like that organism, but horizontal gene transfer makes that assumption false.
Difficulties in defining "species" for extinct organisms
Many extinct organisms are known only from fossils, which generally only preserve features. Fossils have not (so far) shown us what bred with what, and cannot tell us whether any resulting offspring would have been fertile. So paleontologists generally use either the morphological or the cladistic definition of species (see below).
Paleontologists also have to cope with another difficulty: one species may gradually evolve into one or more others after a few million years; the original type of organism and the final one are so different that one could not regard the ancestors and the descendants as members of the same species if they existed at the same time; but the intermediate types are so similar to the next and previous types that one cannot say exactly where species A changed into species B. Paleontologists devised the concept of chronospecies to describe the simplest case, where at the end of the process there is only one descendant type of organism and there are no longer any individuals of the ancestral type. But even this refinement does not work in cases where several descendant types are alive at the same time or where the ancestral type and at least one descendant type are alive at the same time - and both of these situations are common in the evolution of life on Earth. Human evolution may offer a striking example: some geneticists have suggested that for about 1 million years there was some interbreeding between the early ancestors of humans and the early ancestors of chimpanzees (James Mallet and other MIT and Harvard scientists, as quoted in the news magazine This Week, June 9, 2006).
Numbers of species.
As a soft guide, however, the numbers of identified modern species as of 2004 can be broken down as follows:
However the total number of species for some phyla may be much higher:
Definitions of species.
The question of how best to define "species" is one that has occupied biologists for centuries, and the debate itself has become known as the species problem. One definition that is widely used is that a species is a group of actually or potentially interbreeding populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups.
The definition of a species given above is due to Mayr, and is somewhat idealistic. Since it assumes sexual reproduction, it leaves the term undefined for a large class of organisms that reproduce asexually. Biologists frequently do not know whether two morphologically similar groups of organisms are "potentially" capable of interbreeding. Further, there is considerable variation in the degree to which hybridization may succeed under natural and experimental conditions, or even in the degree to which some organisms use sexual reproduction between individuals to breed. Consequently, several lines of thought in the definition of species exist:
In practice, these definitions often coincide, and the differences between them are more a matter of emphasis than of outright contradiction. Nevertheless, no species concept yet proposed is entirely objective, or can be applied in all cases without resorting to judgement. Given the complexity of life, some have argued that such an objective definition is in all likelihood impossible, and biologists should settle for the most practical definition. For most vertebrates, this is the biological species concept (BSC), and to a lesser extent (or for different purposes) the phylogenetic species concept (PSC). Many BSC subspecies are considered species under the PSC; the difference between the BSC and the PSC can be summed up insofar as that the BSC defines a species as a consequence of manifest evolutionary history, while the PSC defines a species as a consequence of manifest evolutionary potential. Thus, a PSC species is "made" as soon as an evolutionary lineage has started to separate, while a BSC species starts to exist only when the lineage separation is complete.
Importance in biological classification of species.
The idea of species has a long history. It is one of the most important levels of classification, for several reasons:
After thousands of years of use, the concept remains central to biology and a host of related fields, and yet also remains at times ill-defined.
Implications of assignment of species status.
The naming of a particular species should be regarded as a hypothesis about the evolutionary relationships and distinguishability of that group of organisms. As further information comes to hand, the hypothesis may be confirmed or refuted. Sometimes, especially in the past when communication was more difficult, taxonomists working in isolation have given two distinct names to individual organisms later identified as the same species. When two named species are discovered to be of the same species, the older species name is usually retained, and the newer species name dropped, a process called synonymization, or convivially, as lumping. Dividing a taxon into multiple, often new, taxons is called splitting. Taxonomists are often referred to as "lumpers" or "splitters" by their colleagues, depending on their personal approach to recognizing differences or commonalities between organisms (see lumpers and splitters).
Traditionally, researchers relied on observations of anatomical differences, and on observations of whether different populations were able to interbreed successfully, to distinguish species; both anatomy and breeding behavior are still important to assigning species status. As a result of the revolutionary (and still ongoing) advance in microbiological research techniques, including DNA analysis, in the last few decades, a great deal of additional knowledge about the differences and similarities between species has become available. Many populations which were formerly regarded as separate species are now considered to be a single taxon, and many formerly grouped populations have been split. Any taxonomic level (species, genus, family, etc.) can be synonymized or split, and at higher taxonomic levels, these revisions have been still more profound.
From a taxonomical point of view, groups within a species can be defined as being of a taxon hierarchically lower than a species. In zoology only the subspecies is used, while in botany the variety, subvariety, and form are used as well. In conservation biology, the concept of evolutionary significant units (ESU) is used, which may be define either species or smaller distinct population segments.
The isolation species concept in more detail.
In general, for large, complex, organisms that reproduce sexually (such as mammals and birds), one of several variations on the isolation or biological species concept is employed. Often, the distinction between different species, even quite closely related ones, is simple. Horses (Equus caballus) and donkeys (Equus asinus) are easily told apart even without study or training, and yet are so closely related that they can interbreed after a fashion. Because the result, a mule or hinny, is not usually fertile, they are clearly separate species.
But many cases are more difficult to decide. This is where the isolation species concept diverges from the evolutionary species concept. Both agree that a species is a lineage that maintains its integrity over time, that is diagnosably different from other lineages (else we could not recognise it), is reproductively isolated (else the lineage would merge into others, given the chance to do so), and has a working intra-species recognition system (without which it could not continue). In practice, both also agree that a species must have its own independent evolutionary history-otherwise the characteristics just mentioned would not apply. The species concepts differ in that the evolutionary species concept does not make predictions about the future of the population: it simply records that which is already known. In contrast, the isolation species concept refuses to assign the rank of species to populations that, in the best judgement of the researcher, would recombine with other populations if given the chance to do so.
The isolation question of species.
There are, essentially, two questions to resolve. First, is the proposed species consistently and reliably distinguishable from other species? Secondly, is it likely to remain so in the future? To take the second question first, there are several broad geographic possibilities.
The difference question of species.
Obviously, when defining a species, the geographic circumstances become meaningful only if the populations groups in question are clearly different: if they are not consistently and reliably distinguishable from one another, then we have no grounds for believing that they might be different species. The key question in this context, is "how different is different?" and the answer is usually "it all depends".
In theory, it would be possible to recognise even the tiniest of differences as sufficient to delineate a separate species, provided only that the difference is clear and consistent (and that other criteria are met). There is no universal rule to state the smallest allowable difference between two species, but in general, very trivial differences are ignored on the twin grounds of simple practicality, and genetic similarity: if two population groups are so close that the distinction between them rests on an obscure and microscopic difference in morphology, or a single base substitution in a DNA sequence, then a demonstration of restricted gene flow between the populations will probably be difficult in any case.
More typically, one or other of the following requirements must be met:
Sometimes it is not possible to isolate a single difference between species, and several factors must be taken in combination. This is often the case with plants in particular. In eucalypts, for example, Corymbia ficifolia cannot be reliably distinguished from its close relative Corymbia calophylla by any single measure (and sometimes individual trees cannot be definitely assigned to either species), but populations of Corymbia can be clearly told apart by comparing the colour of flowers, bark, and buds, number of flowers for a given size of tree, and the shape of the leaves and fruit.
When using a combination of characteristics to distinguish between populations, it is necessary to use a reasonably small number of factors (if more than a handful are needed, the genetic difference between the populations is likely to be insignificant and is unlikely to endure into the future), and to choose factors that are functionally independent (height and weight, for example, should usually be considered as one factor, not two).
Historical development of the species concept
In the earliest works of science, a species was simply an individual organism that represented a group of similar or nearly identical organisms. No other relationships beyond that group were implied. Aristotle used the words genus and species to mean generic and specific categories. Aristotle and other pre-Darwinian scientists took the species to be distinct and unchanging, with an "essence", like the chemical elements. When early observers began to develop systems of organization for living things, they began to place formerly isolated species into a context. Many of these early delineation schemes would now be considered whimsical and these included consanguinity based on color (all plants with yellow flowers) or behavior (snakes, scorpions and certain biting ants).
In the 18th century Carolus Linnaeus classified organisms according to differences in the form of reproductive apparatus. Although his system of classification sorts organisms according to degrees of similarity, it made no claims about the relationship between similar species. At that time, it was still widely believed that there was no organic connection between species, no matter how similar they appeared. This approach also suggested a type of idealism: the notion that each species existed as an "ideal form". Although there are always differences (although sometimes minute) between individual organisms, Linnaeus considered such variation problematic. He strove to identify individual organisms that were exemplary of the species, and considered other non-exemplary organisms to be deviant and imperfect.
By the 19th century most naturalists understood that species could change form over time, and that the history of the planet provided enough time for major changes. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, in his 1809 Zoological Philosophy, offered one of the first logical arguments against creationism. The new emphasis was on determining how a species could change over time. Lamarck suggested that an organism could pass on an acquired trait to its offspring, i.e., the giraffe's long neck was attributed to generations of giraffes stretching to reach the leaves of higher treetops (this well-known and simplistic example, however, does not do justice to the breadth and subtlety of Lamarck's ideas). With the acceptance of the natural selection idea of Charles Darwin in the 1860s, however, Lamarck's view of goal-oriented evolution, also known as a teleological process, was eclipsed. Recent interest in inheritance of acquired characteristics centers around epigenetic processes, e.g. methylation, that do not affect DNA sequences, but instead alter expression in an inheritable manner. Thus, neo-lamarckism, as it is sometimes termed, is not a challenge to the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace provided what scientists now consider as the most powerful and compelling theory of evolution. Darwin argued that it was populations that evolved, not individuals. His argument relied on a radical shift in perspective from that of Linnaeus: rather than defining species in ideal terms (and searching for an ideal representative and rejecting deviations), Darwin considered variation among individuals to be natural. He further argued that variation, far from being problematic, actually provides the explanation for the existence of distinct species.
Darwin's work drew on Thomas Malthus' insight that the rate of growth of a biological population will always outpace the rate of growth of the resources in the environment, such as the food supply. As a result, Darwin argued, not all the members of a population will be able to survive and reproduce. Those that did will, on average, be the ones possessing variations-however slight-that make them slightly better adapted to the environment. If these variable traits are heritable, then the offspring of the survivors will also possess them. Thus, over many generations, adaptive variations will accumulate in the population, while counter-adaptive will be eliminated.
It should be emphasized that whether a variation is adaptive or non-adaptive depends on the environment: different environments favor different traits. Since the environment effectively selects which organisms live to reproduce, it is the environment (the "fight for existence") that selects the traits to be passed on. This is the theory of evolution by natural selection. In this model, the length of a giraffe's neck would be explained by positing that proto-giraffes with longer necks would have had a significant reproductive advantage to those with shorter necks. Over many generations, the entire population would be a species of long-necked animals.
In 1859, when Darwin published his theory of natural selection, the mechanism behind the inheritance of individual traits was unknown. Although Darwin made some speculations on how traits are inherited (pangenesis), his theory relies only on the fact that inheritable traits exist, and are variable (which makes his accomplishment even more remarkable.) Although Gregor Mendel's paper on genetics was published in 1866, its significance was not recognized. It was not until 1900 that his work was rediscovered by Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak, who realised that the "inheritable traits" in Darwin's theory are genes.
The theory of the evolution of species through natural selection has two important implications for discussions of species -- consequences that fundamentally challenge the assumptions behind Linnaeus' taxonomy. First, it suggests that species are not just similar, they may actually be related. Some students of Darwin argue that all species are descended from a common ancestor. Second, it supposes that "species" are not homogeneous, fixed, permanent things; members of a species are all different, and over time species change. This suggests that species do not have any clear boundaries but are rather momentary statistical effects of constantly changing gene-frequencies. One may still use Linnaeus' taxonomy to identify individual plants and animals, but one can no longer think of species as independent and immutable.
The rise of a new species from a parental line is called speciation. There is no clear line demarcating the ancestral species from the descendant species.
Although the current scientific understanding of species suggests that there is no rigorous and comprehensive way to distinguish between different species in all cases, biologists continue to seek concrete ways to operationalize the idea. One of the most popular biological definitions of species is in terms of reproductive isolation; if two creatures cannot reproduce to produce fertile offspring, then they are in different species. This definition captures a number of intuitive species boundaries, but it remains imperfect. It has nothing to say about species that reproduce asexually, for example, and it is very difficult to apply to extinct species. Moreover, boundaries between species are often fuzzy: there are examples where members of one population can produce fertile offspring with a second population, and members of the second population can produce fertile offspring with members of a third population, but members of the first and third population cannot produces fertile offspring. Consequently, some people reject this definition of a species.
In recent years we have witnessed the drastic reduction in the size of breeding populations and the geographical range of many large mammals. In earlier times it was assumed that every species existed in at least a few thousand living individuals, except very rare relic, isolated groups. In the present, many well know mammal and bird species are so stressed by habitat loss, and other effects of the modern world, that only a very few breeding males may contribute the genetic material to a small number of breeding females. In these highly stressed conditions, the likelihood of change is very much greater. Mammals may become smaller, have darker fur, more stripes, more cautious behavior, even over time learn to co-exist with the human world. Very likely, evolution is radically accelerated, and we are only beginning to notice it. It is possible that this severe stress is essential to the creation of new species, and may have been a prime factor throughout biological history, from other population reducing influences.
Richard Dawkins defines two organisms as conspecific if and only if they have the same number of chromosomes and, for each chromosome, both organisms have the same number of nucleotides (The Blind Watchmaker, p. 118). However, most if not all taxonomists would strongly disagree. For example, in many Amphibians, most notably in New Zealand's Leiopelma frogs, the genome consists of "core" chromosomes which are mostly invariable and accessory chromosomes, of which exist a number of possible combinations. Even though the chromosome numbers are highly variable between populations, these can interbreed successfully and form a single evolutionary unit. In plants, polyploidy is extremely commonplace with few restrictions on interbreeding; as individuals with an odd number of chromosome sets are usually sterile, depending on the actual number of chromosome sets present, this results in the odd situation where some individuals of the same evolutionary unit can interbreed with certain others and some cannot, with all populations being eventually linked as to form a common gene pool.
The classification of species has been profoundly affected by technological advances that have allowed researchers to determine relatedness based on molecular markers, starting with the comparatively crude blood plasma precipitation assays in the mid-20th century to Charles Sibley's ground-breaking DNA-DNA hybridisation studies in the 1970s leading to DNA sequencing techniques. The results of these techniques caused revolutionary changes in the higher taxonomic categories (such as phyla and classes), resulting in the reordering of many branches of the phylogenetic tree (see also: molecular phylogeny). For taxonomic categories below genera, the results have been mixed so far; the pace of evolutionary change on the molecular level is rather slow, yielding clear differences only after considerable periods of reproductive separation. DNA-DNA hybridization results have led to misleading conclusions, the Pomarine Skua - Great Skua phenomenon being a famous example. Turtles have been determined to evolve with just one-eighth of the speed of other reptiles on the molecular level, and the rate of molecular evolution in albatrosses is half of what is found in the rather closely related storm-petrels. The hybridization technique is now obsolete and is replaced by more reliable computational approaches for sequence comparison. Molecular taxonomy is not directly based on the evolutionary processes, but rather on the overall change brought upon by these processes. The processes that lead to the generation and maintenance of variation such as mutation, crossover and selection are not uniform (see also molecular clock). DNA is only extremely rarely a direct target of natural selection rather than changes in the DNA sequence enduring over generations being a result of the latter; for example, silent transition-transversion combinations would alter the Melting point of the DNA sequence, but not the sequence of the encoded proteins and thus are a possible example where, for example in microorganisms, a mutation confers a change in fitness all by itself.
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