Use of higher taxonomic groups = use species?

Byron J. Adams bjadams at UFL.EDU
Thu Nov 16 09:11:22 CST 2000

on 11/15/00 10:27 PM, Gabriel A. Eickhoff at eickhoff at UMICH.EDU wrote:

> Let me pose you a question,
> Must we treat all species as unique in community ecology, or can we get the
> same understanding by studying higher taxonomic groups?
> My gut instinct has been to say no, species must be treated as unique,
> largely based on Mayr and the species concept.
> Thoughts?
> -Gabe

    We often hear that we can use "higher" taxa, instead of species, to get
at ecological questions.  The problem with this notion is that "higher taxa"
do not always respond uniformly to environmental changes.  For example, a
clade of species may belong to the same trophic group (fungivore,
bacteriovore, herbivore, etc.,) but the individual species that have
membership in that clade may vary widely in their response to environmental
changes - consider life history differences such as reproductive timing,
fecundity, or niche partitioning and net resource utilization.

    It goes without saying that for most (all?) ecosystem function and
community ecology questions, species are the most empowering units of
currency.  In my experience, advocates for the use of "higher" taxonomic
groups are among those who want to ask ecological questions but cannot mount
the taxonomic effort required to do it _correctly_.  The groups are too
large, and the taxonomic expertise depauperate.  As I see it, research
programs in "biocomplexity" "ecosystem function" and "the biodiversity
crisis" stand to benefit most from an infusion of effort and resources
towards training competent taxonomists.

    But I don't see where this has anything to do with Mayr and his concept
of species (in fact, the notion that species possess the _potential_ to
interbreed obviates the ecologist's ability to discriminate between two
"potentially reproductive taxa" that in reality make two different
ecological contributions).

Byron J. Adams
University of Florida
Dept. of Entomology and Nematology
Natural Area Drive
PO Box 110620
Gainesville, FL 32611-0260

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