Readers wrangle with definition of ‘species’

In “Defining ‘species’ is a fuzzy art” (SN: 11/11/17, p. 22), Susan Milius asked scientists to define “species.” Schoolbooks may define the concept as a group of organisms that create fertile offspring when mating with each other but not when mating with outsiders. But for researchers specializing in the topic, a single definition is hard to come by.

“It seems to me that when it comes to animals and especially animal fossils, that biologists are always looking to maximize the number of species,” online reader Mark S. wrote.

MJF Images disagreed: “Sometimes we learn of new species and sometimes we learn we have made a mistake. But naturally as we explore more environments (the deep seafloor, for example), we discover organisms we have never encountered. That addition to the list of known species is certainly not an attempt by biologists to artificially ‘maximize’ species counts.”

Online reader Casey Burns thought scientists should move past the debate over lumping versus splitting and focus on the concept of “guilds.” Guilds are collections of species that occupy the same niche in an environment, and are a way for researchers to gauge biodiversity.

J.H. Pikul et al/Science 2017

Milius’ essay focused on species, but “an identical discussion could be carried on about nearly any feature of science,” wrote…

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