The value (or not?) of subspecies

Russell Seymour R.Seymour at NHM.AC.UK
Wed Mar 19 09:51:59 CST 1997

Dear Taxacom-ers

First, permit me to introduce myself. I am a Masters student studying
"Advanced Methods in Taxonomy and Biodiversity" registered with Imperial
College, London and studying in the British Museum of Natural History,
London. I have been following many of the threads with fascination over the
past few months and I thank all of those who have contributed. I'd now like
to 'step out of the shadows' and post my own question:

I wonder if anyone would express an opinion of the value (or not) of
subspecific designations? It seems to me that spatial subspecific variation
is a valid area for biodiversity study. Despite the idea that the species is
the "keystone of evolution" (Mayr, 1963) surely evolution/speciation occurs
at the level of separate populations taking advantage of local adaptations
and variation? Currently many listed trinomials are of dubious worth, with
many apparently named on the logic of; We are in a different location, it
must be a new subspecies! This appears to be true for many terrestrial
vertebrates. Such 'historical baggage' is detrimental, particularly in the
light of some contemporary conservation legislation naming subspecies in
their articles.

On this basis why are subspecies still 'out of fashion'? Is it because of
the indeterminate 'baggage' inherent in many of the current trinomials? I'd
suggest part of it is semantic and revolves around species concepts. I'm
sure that what one calls a 'phylogenetic species' another might call a

So, is subspecific taxonomy valid and useful? If so, how should we recognise it?

I have three criteria of my own which I believe are valid for subspecies
1. Fixed phenotypic or genotypic variation.
2. Significant behavioural differences such that translocation of an
individual between locations of different subspecies might preclude survival.
3. Environmentally induced variation.

I realise that one or two of these might be contentious. My own major
interest is in terestrial vertebrates but I would welcome responses from all
sectors of study.

I have posted this request to other lists and I apologise if you subscribe
to these and receive it more than once. I ask for your replies from your
point of view as practising systematists.

May I ask that you mail me directly please:

r.seymour at

I have temporarily unsubscribed from the list as my Easter break is just
beginning. I will be checking mail regularly but not as frequently as
before. A backlog of messages could be somewhat daunting! If people are
interested I will gladly compile the answers (assuming permission from the
authors) and distribute them. Again, mail me.

(Please note that I am considering a dissertation on the validity of
subspecies and their role in conservation efforts. I may wish to follow up
some of the ideas expressed - with the permission of the correspondent.)

I thank you in advance


RUSSELL SEYMOUR MRes.   MSc. Advanced Methods in Taxonomy and Biodiversity

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