Thursday, 21 May 2009

Taxinomic Un-sure-ed-ness

I'm starting to look into the systematics of wolves, in preparation for a potential project. Systematics is the study of naming things as species, subspecies, genera, families, and so on. It's all the Latin you see thrown around after common names. The rules are arcane, complex, and written by rich dead guys from Europe who didn't know that biologists would be doing what we're doing with it today. People have tried to redesign the rules from time to time, but it rarely is met with success.

You think it'd be easy to say what a species is. After all, we're always talking about this species, or that species - it's the most fundamental unit of population biology. Superficially, it's easy to point to brown bears and Pintail Ducks and say "Oh, yes, different Species for sure!" But when you get to coyotes and wolves, how about then? Wolves and dogs? The rules start getting very fuzzy.

The dirty secret of biology is we're not sure how to define a species. There are as many as 22 different ways to define species, with little agreement between them. Some heathens, like myself, are beginning to doubt that species actually exist as "a discrete biological entity." I envision sliding scales of similarity where populations are free to become less similar through isolation, or more similar through interbreeding. I imagine a few numbers that describe, say, `bear-ish-ness,` where Brown Bears, Black Bears and Polar Bears all have different values. The idea of a monotypic species is beginning to become very suspicious to me.

So if there's so much uncertainty, fuzziness and doubt around what is and isn't a species, imagine how much there is around the idea of a subspecies. Depending on who you talk to, there's between one and sixteen subspecies of brown bear in Alaska. The truth probably lies closer to the smaller value.

This unclaritude is reflected in wolf systematics. According to once source, there were 5 recognized subspecies and two species of wolf in North America. According to another, there was twenty four subspecies and two species. That's a heck of a lot of space between the two. While I write this, there's probably someone out there conspiring to name yet another subspecies, ranging the estimate up towards 25 or more in North America. I don't envy the sucker who has to wrap their head around all this.

Oh, that sucker's me, isn't it?

I present C. Lupus Zoalis
Common Name: The Zoo Wolf.
Type Specimen: Anchorage Zoo

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