Unveiling the hidden part of biodiversity
Scientists recently discovered there is not one but four distinct species of giraffe, based on their genetic differences. These findings overturned century old accepted knowledge about a well known species, and may spur renewed efforts to save their threatened populations. Such "camouflaged" biodiversity – or cryptic species – may account for a substantial part of the world's biodiversity. However, searching for processes involved in "hidden" diversity is a daunting task, especially when no consensus even exist for what a cryptic species really is among researchers. A multidiciplinary team of scientists from the Natural History Museum in Oslo has taken on the challenge and proposes a new framework that provides researchers with common grounds in their hunt for biological processes underlying cryptic biodiversity.
Photo: Volodymyr Burdiak / Colourbox
The correct assessment of biodiversity is an important aspect in biology like determining the fauna and flora of a country for conservation biology, how ecosystems react to climate change and other anthropogenic influences or which actual species (e.g. medical plants) contain medically active components. Hence it is important to know to what degree cryptic species are part of the biodiversity. This is especially important, when the studies are based on morphology only (e.g. this is the only option for paleoecology), main author Torsten Struck explains.
– In this article we provide the foundation for what a cryptic species really is, and base this definition purely on biological properties so that the authors in the future will have to determine if the supposed cryptic species are significantly much more similar to each other than to other closely related species, which are of similar age. This allows a standardization of what is called a cryptic species across different branches of the tree of life, Struck says.
– The origins and assessment of cryptic species has been a long standing problem in evolutionary biology. The insights provided by a interdisciplinary group of researchers at the Oslo Museum lead by Professor Struck provide a roadmap for breaking down barriers that have hindered our understanding in the field, states Kenneth Halanych at Auburn University (AL, USA).
– It will force scientists across disciplines to critically re-evaluate how they assess and interpret the “hidden” diversity on the planet.
The framwork will hopefully increase our understanding of cryptic species distribution patterns on the tree of life, and our abilities to resolve the processes underlying their evolution.