Darwin — We’ve Got a Problem

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen


dogs_breeeds_or_species_420Biology has a ‘new’ problem: Speciation Reversal.  One recent paper on the topic declares:

We argue that extinction by speciation reversal may be more widespread than currently appreciated. Preventing such extinctions will require that conservation efforts not only target existing species but identify and protect the ecological and evolutionary processes that generate and maintain species”.

 Another paper worries that climate change is hastening the loss of landscape heterogeneity thus encouraging “Interspecific hybridization [which] is …. an evolutionary process that is (i) highly susceptible to human influences, and (ii) very fast”  and that “The most probable proximate outcome of such hybridization will be a collapse of hybridizing species and subsequent loss of biodiversity.”


A third paper laments the speciation reversal seen in two previously separately identified raven species in California, the non-sister lineages of ‘California’ and ‘Holarctic’ ravens, which underwent a fusion and formed the Common Raven.  This “represents a case of ancient speciation reversal that occurred without anthropogenic causes.”   This same paper holds that “Under certain circumstances, hybridisation can cause distinct lineages to collapse into a single lineage with an admixed mosaic genome. Most known cases of such ‘speciation reversal’ or ‘lineage fusion’ involve recently diverged lineages and anthropogenic perturbation.”

What in Darwin’s Name is going on here?  Whole species going extinct by speciation reversal — an existential threat to biological diversity on Earth?  Or just a threat to the concepts of modern biology?

The biological concepts are:  “Speciation is the evolutionary process by which populations evolve to become distinct species.”  However, “introgressive hybridization erodes differentiation until species collapse into a hybrid swarm. A special case of introgressive hybridization is speciation reversal, in which changes in selection regimes increase gene flow between sympatric species, thus eroding genetic and ecological differences. Speciation reversal may be particularly important in adaptive radiations with recently diverged sympatric species that lack strong intrinsic postzygotic isolation.” [quote link]

Let’s see if we can sort some of the terms out: [in all senses here, we are talking of natural interactions in the biota and we will exclude any consideration of the possibilities of human directed genetic manipulation such as CRISPR-Cas9 techniques.]

Introgressive hybridization, in genetics is the movement of a gene (gene flow) from one species into the gene pool of another by the repeated backcrossing of an interspecific hybrid with one of its parent species. Purposeful introgression is a long-term process; it may take many hybrid generations before the backcrossing occurs.

Interspecific hybrids are bred by mating individuals from two species, normally from within the same genus. The offspring display traits and characteristics of both parents.  [Many interspecific hybrids are sterile, preventing gene flow between the species. An example is the mule, a sterile cross between donkeys and horses.]

Sympatric species are species that occupy the same or overlapping territories  —  sympatric and sympatry are terms referring to organisms whose ranges overlap or are even identical.

Species:  Oh boy — we have a problem here.  Let’s try the old high school standard: “A species is often defined as the largest group of organisms in which two individuals can produce fertile offspring, typically by sexual reproduction. “

If that definition were the one adhered to, then introgressive hybridization and interspecific hybrids would be impossible by the definition of species that excludes reproductively-viable inter-species hybrids.

If that definition is adhered to, the Speciation Reversal is also impossible and we can relax — no threat to species then.

But, interspecific hybrids are popping up all over the taxonomic map.  That leads us to:

The Species Problem:  “The species problem is the set of questions that arises when biologists attempt to define what a species is. Such a definition is called a species concept; there are at least 26 recognized species concepts.”

The species problem is not new — Darwin spoke of it in his 1859 volume “On the origin of species by means of natural selection” in which he wrote:

“… I was much struck how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties.”

We see this in the domestic dog [Canis lupus familiaris].  Domestic dog sizes, physical forms, coloration of fur (and lack of fur), behaviors and even intelligence and “personality” vary fantastically for a single species.  Despite this, based on the ability of dogs to inter-breed between varieties, dog breeds, they are considered a single species.  There are some practical problems with inter-varietal breeding (crossing various breeds) — Great Danes cannot physically breed with Chihuahuas  — but if they did, the offspring would be viable.

As with the domestic dog, it is highly uncertain how many “species” as currently designated are truly  “the largest group of organisms in which two individuals can produce fertile offspring” rather than simply local breeding populations that might be better described as “varieties” — such as varieties of sparrows, varieties of wolves, varieties of bears etc.

The question of speciation reversal becomes policy-relevant in light of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA does not use the usual biology definition of species (if one can call what is in use a definition at all) when designating “species” to be protected,  Instead it uses something quite different, as explained in  “The Meaning of Species under the Endangered Species Act”:

 A group of organisms can be listed under the ESA only if the group constitutes a species. Although the ESA uses the term “species,” it does not use “species” in the common biological sense. In the field of biology, “species” refers to a taxonomic category consisting of “groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups.”

In contrast, the ESA currently defines “species” as follows:

(16) The term “species” includes any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

 I hope that you can see the problem this presents.  Not only does the ESA allow Endangered Species designation for “reproductively isolated” populations, which may not actually be species in the stricter sense, in that, if brought together, they would interbreed with viable offspring.  The ESA goes much further and allows the designation of “subspecies” — another word without a scientific definition — AND “any distinct population segment of any species”.   This virtually allows the designation of nearly any small, isolated population of any vertebrate fish or wildlife.

For example, such a designation could be made for a particular lizard population isolated on one of the Channel Islands of California even though the species is an extremely common lizard found up and down the coast of California.

What do we do about Speciation Reversal and protections under ESA?

The first paper mentioned in this essay stated: “Preventing such extinctions will require that conservation efforts not only target existing species but identify and protect the ecological and evolutionary processes that generate and maintain species.”  It demands that conservation efforts combat the forces of evolution itself — that somehow we must prevent designated species from interbreeding with…well…themselves which would force biologists to acknowledge that the species involved were not species at all, but only varieties of the same species.

red_wolfThere is at least one situation in which the ESA requires that biologists run a breeding program to cross-breed two separate species, Coyotes and Grey Wolves,  to produce the species labeled the Red Wolf to “keep it from going extinct” — the Red Wolf  is not really a species at all but a hybrid between two “species” that are probably biologically varieties of an overlaying Canis species.  You see, in the past, when wolves and coyotes both roamed the lands east of the Mississippi, the coyote [Canis latrans] and the grey wolf [Canis lupus]  interbred, producing a hybrid known as the red wolf [Canis rufus or Canis lupus rufus] which has not only been incorrectly named as a distinct species but declared an officially-designated Endangered Species.  For more about this interesting story, see The Gray, Gray World of WolvesWhile I don’t normally recommend Wikipedia for anything more than quick references, the discussion there on the Red Wolf question is pretty thorough — at least as far as demonstrating how inadequate our current definition of species is.  Carl Zimmer at the New York Times wrote about this in 2016 in a piece titled “DNA Study Reveals the One and Only Wolf Species in North America”, and highlights Bridgett vanHoldt et al.’s finding that “Whole-genome sequence analysis shows that two endemic species of North American wolf [the Eastern Wolf and the Red Wolf] are admixtures of the coyote and gray wolf”.

When grey wolves were extirpated from most of the Eastern US, interbreeding slowed to a standstill, and there has been an apparent “species loss” due to the normal processes of evolution — not, however,  the Golden Age version of evolution, where everything runs in one direction — not the Beatles version “I got to admit it’s getting better, little better all the time…”.

giraffes Of course, it isn’t that simple.  Again, the Species Problem —  biology does not have a standardized definition of species based on similarity or differences in DNA sequences either.  Despite this fact, the new techniques in DNA sequencing and whole genome sequencing have prompted a flood of studies of the genomes of various species comparing them to related species and making pronouncements about the need to combine or split species.  Like the paper mentioned above on North American Wolves, another recent paper declared the need to re-speciate giraffes.

If wolves keep inter-breeding with coyotes, we will end up with one big hybrid population, undifferentiated into separate species.  Is that a “loss of species diversity” that threatens wolf species with extinction, thus making them all qualified for Endangered Designation  under the ESA?   What about the ravens in California, should Holoarctic Ravens and California Ravens be designated Endangered because of the past speciation reversal that brought about the Common Raven — and if this trend continues, they will all end up as Common Ravens, and we will lose two species.  How would we protect the ravens and wolves and coyotes from themselves?

It is well-established that what brings about evolution — in either ‘direction’ — is change:  genetic changes (either from normal genetic mixtures or genetic mutations), behavioral changes (such as mating and feeding preferences), spatial changes (displacement of species and introduction of species) and environmental changes  (changing climates, changing biota, changing landscape, volcanoes, hurricanes, etc) .  Some of these changes can be anthropogenic and others due to natural forces.  It is, of course, possible that when local and micro-climates change it will affect local populations of animals — which may (or may not) result in changes in breeding patterns (etc.) which could be evolutionary in effect. We see that these changes can tend towards differentiation and speciation or, in the other direction, towards hybridization and collapse of two or more species or varieties into one, or the creation of what appear to be new varieties or species.

Bottom Line: It is fairly certain that Mankind cannot defeat the forces that drive evolution — which will run on, despite our efforts, in either direction.

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Author’s Comment Policy:

The topic of Speciation Reversal brings up so many questions that it is hard to focus on a direction for further discussion.  My inclination is to let you, the readers, propose the follow-up questions and then we can jointly try to get some answers to those questions.

If you have a comment or question for me personally, begin your comment with “Kip…” and that will help me see it.

Darwinism and Evolution both tend to be “triggering” topics which evoke a lot of emotion and strong opinions.  Let’s try to keep the discussion just to these two narrower topics:  The 1) Species Problem,  2) Speciation Reversal and the ESA.  Thank you.

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275 thoughts on “Darwin — We’ve Got a Problem

  1. I thought that all domestic dogs except two were genetically grey wolves. The two exceptions being dingos and Basenjis. Correct???

    • Dingos can interbreed freely with dogs. However, that didn’t stop an Australian researcher from trying to define dingos as a new species. I sometimes wonder if he was having a lend. Pointing out that the definition of species had become so corrupted you could get away with anything. Judging by the ESA rules, he was right.

      • My Zoology lecturer told us that to define a new species, you have to convince 3 referees and an editor that you have found one!

      • If I remember correctly, “dingos” are the result of the breeding of feral dogs in Australia a long time ago.

    • Mike Jonas ==> Our beautiful basenji, Jude, passed on this winter after sharing our lives for almost 20 years — the photo in the Wiki page is a near-perfect likeness.

      Basenji’s are considered an “ancient bred” — exisiting before the development of modern domestic dog breeds. Quoting the Wiki:
      “The Basenji is an ancient breed. It has been identified as a basal breed that predates the emergence of the modern breeds in the 19th century.Recent DNA studies based on whole-genome sequences indicate that the domestic dog is a genetically divergent subspecies of the gray wolf and was derived from a now-extinct ghost population of Late Pleistocene wolves, and the basenji and the dingo are both considered to be basal members of the domestic dog clade. “The term basal refers to a lineage that diverges early in the history of the group…and lies on a branch that originates near the common ancestor of the group.”

      Jude was a desert dog, terrified of any body of water, including puddles, and loath to step on wet grass. Snow made her rather crazy….

      • A detailed study with abundant DNA data, reported in Science several years ago results of genetic testing on several breeds of dogs. Although some conclusions were expected — e.g. northern breeds (like malamute and Siberian) were closely related to wolves — other findings were surprises. For example, a couple of breeds thought to be ancient appeared to be developed much later with the intention that they be made to resemble drawings of ancient dog types. So appearance alone may not be sufficient.

    • Little Lundehund isn’t a grey wolf descendant. More of a step nephew.

      … six (working) toes/pads & other very unique characteristics. Thought to might be descended from Canis Forus. Although there is no reason the Lundehund couldn’t breed with any other doggytype species or subspecies.

      (which makes me want go off on a make believe tangent about the hobbit “florus man” and how the little peoples evolved together with the little canis florus …)

    • Dingos are normal dogs that went feral. All dogs are wolves. I think you were thinking coyotes which are a separate species, or African painted dogs.

    • Surely. if a species is endangered, all the males can just declare themselves to be femailes and double the reproductive capacity? That MUST be one of Animal Rights proposed by activists….

      • . . . hmmmmm , always question those two pillars of evolution, natural selection & random mutation, I’ve always had this niggling feeling that something was missing with the “random” mutation thing, always felt that we’re missing some “feedback” force in evolution . . . . more like mutation due to some feedback mechanism, the random part just doesn’t ring true ???

      • . . . . the natural selection part is easily proven, the “random” mutation proof, has that been proven with the scientific method ?

      • Here, Spot! Good boy!

        “Random” is a first approximation. Because we have not identified any directive force, we are forced (pardon the wording) to assume random.

        For example: we know that “cosmic rays” can alter chromosomes. Should we assume an intelligence behind that energetic particle? That would require a vastly larger set of assumptions (or faith) than just assuming it is random. Occam’s Razor and all that.

      • Proving randomness is equivalent to proving no directive force. In other words, proving a negative.

        Ain’t gonna happan.

      • Anne Ominous ” directive force” ?? where did that come from ? I said a “feedback mechanism” Annie, I’ll clarify, some sort of genetic-nature-environmental-feedback rather than “random”.
        p.s. what D.C. Cowboy said.

      • If memory serves, mutations are not strictly random. There are ‘hot spots’ in the genome that are more likely to be affected and many genes are highly conserved.

      • Sunspot,

        “Random” with respect to mutation is widely misunderstood.

        When a passing cosmic ray might knock out a nucelobase is more or less random, but that it can and eventually will happen is a sure thing. Also, when the cosmic ray flux rate goes up, so does the mutation rate.

        Similar caveats apply to all the many other sources of “random” mutation. Moreover, when a population “needs” (ie, will benefit from) more mutation, genomes have within them feedback mechanisms to facilitate mutation through replication errors and other means. But there is no reason to posit mysterious outside, supernatural agencies to explain these facts.

      • Ktm March 19, 2018 at 8:45 pm

        Presume you’re being sarcastic. The first living thing might have had only a single gene, ie genetic coding for a protein or shorter polypeptide. Adding just one gene to this original minimal genome per million generations gets you to 200 genes in about 7600 years, assuming 20 minutes per protocellular generation. My arithmetic might be faulty, but you get the idea.

      • PS:

        This Ur-gene itself could have been quite short, since oligomers of just several amino acids can show enzymatic activity. If they’re long enough to fold into useful shapes, they can serve to catalyze reactions such as polymerizing RNA. Thus, the first gene might well have been a short, primitive version of RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. (As you know, each amino acid is coded by three nucleobases, so the gene would have been three times as long, in terms of nucleotide monomers, as the amino acid monomers in the peptide chain,)

        RNA can also itself serve as an enzyme, ie a ribozyme.

    • If those two “species” of ravens intermix and are viable, then it could be argued that they were not two species in the first place, just as dog breeds are not different species.

      This is the old lumpers versus splitters debate. The mosquitoes of Gibraltar cannot interbreed with those from Morocco, but mosquito populations going east from Morocco all the way around the Mediterranean counterclockwise and over westward to Gibraltar can interbreed. So, is it all one species, even though the Gibraltar and Moroccan mosquitoes cannot breed. There is not clear answer to this.

      • higley7 ==> Is that so? about the mosquitos?

        All I know is that I have been bitten by mosquitoes in Gib and Tangiers — and got a touch of malaria from the Moroccan buggers.

      • > The mosquitoes of Gibraltar cannot interbreed with those from Morocco, but mosquito populations going east from Morocco all the way around the Mediterranean counterclockwise and over westward to Gibraltar can interbreed.

        There are several known examples of continuous drift leading to infertility or inability to hybridize in a ring species. If that is indeed what happens with mosquitoes at Gibraltar, it is safe to assume that the diametrically opposed populations across the Mediterranean are also incompatible, so this situation is not so much the consequence of a gap at Gibraltar as it is the function of geographical distance along the ring.


  2. …For example, such a designation could be made for a particular lizard population isolated on one of the Channel Islands of California even though the species is an extremely common lizard found up and down the coast of California….

    So…. if I bring a canary with me as a pet to an Arctic research station we now have to worry about the viability of the new species of Arctic Serinus Canaria Forma Domestica. World population – 1. Heavily endangered….

  3. The concept of species is fuzzy, and there’s no problem with that. Populations of seagulls around the higher North, populations of zebras in Africa. It’s a useful concept in many situations, but not something essential or absolute. It’s also used in talking about bacteria and archaea, but is still less appropriate there, since the basic species concept is about eukaryotic sexually reproducing organisms.

    • not wrong, this bugged me when hysterics banged on about the extinction of the ‘Balinese’ tiger – a subspecies of the Asiatic Tiger. What made it a subspecies ? the biologist who described the thing..

      Or again with the ‘last’ of a certain Galapagos turtle being described as an extinction despite those turtles who remained on nearby islands being cousins and very much the same species.

      Something I discovered studying botany and zoology, there be giant egos in them there departments! It was part of what caused me to reflect on my earlier green indoctrination and finding it wanting, turned toward sciences which actually rely on the philosophy of science rather than dabbling with a few of the tools of science and calling themselves scientists based on the qualification they earned rather than an adherence to real science.

      One point Kip : “Many interspecific hybrids are sterile, preventing gene flow between the species. An example is the mule, a sterile cross between donkeys and horses” – this example is more the exception than the rule, while hybrids are *often* less fertile than the parent species, in species crosses that produce live offspring, infertility is actually pretty rare (which is why that example stands out and is the one most often wheeled out to justify the opinion that hybridization is an offense against the very nature of life )

      Plants hybridize at the drop of a hat, birds seem to have few qualms at mating with different species, and quite a few fertile hybrids result from these Unholy Trysts ..

      ..I believe the official term for hybrid back in Roman times was ‘monster’ – and hybrids have been viewed as abominations since these times.. indicating just how happy humans are that they occur at all.

      If someone wants to read through the ghastly graphics and layout a legitimate geneticist’s macroevolution website they may stumble across a theory of human evolution which actually explains a lot of our non-ape anatomy in a rather unflattering but possibly more accurate way than what we were taught. It’s worth reading in full before hurling abuse at his theories, he’s published in phys.org and took a hammering there already. Either way the site covers a lot of facts about hybrids and how they’re dealt with in biology. warning, he openly includes sections on seemingly ludicrous hybrids and points out that they’re referenced for the purposes of open, historic inclusion only.

      • You need to understand that evolution was the cause of people classifying animals into species, but instead evolution as a theory evolved because people were already classifying & cataloguing animals that had been found.

        And if you’ve ever been caught by a librarian putting a book back on the wrong shelf – you’ll know how keen some people are on their classifications.

      • Scottish ==> Don’t get me started on librarians. As a child, I was TERRIFIED of librarians……

        To this day, my coping technique with them is to pay all library fines in rounded-up whole dollar amounts and refuse to accept any change. It absolutely befuddles them…ha!

      • must add this site too with links and descriptions on mammalian hybrids

        I liked the comment that once a hybrid become commonplace, it’s easy to forget it’s origin was as a hybrid.

      • Karlos51 ==> Yes, you are correct about inter-specific hybrids and sterility. I use the term many in the general biology sense.

        The American Bison is an example: “While all bison species are classified in their own genus, they are sometimes bred with domestic cattle (genus Bos) and produce fertile offspring called beefalo or zubron.” There are many degrees of hybridization of cattle and bison — to the extent that attempts to find and conserve pure bred bison have been difficult:
        “The U.S. National Bison Association has adopted a code of ethics that prohibits its members from deliberately crossbreeding bison with any other species. In the United States, many ranchers are now using DNA testing to cull the residual cattle genetics from their bison herds. The proportion of cattle DNA that has been measured in introgressed individuals and bison herds today is typically quite low, ranging from 0.56 to 1.8%.”

      • The characteristic very long, broad horns, ill-temper, low-weight/wiry/quick-reactions of the Texas Longhorn appears to be very quickly but “naturally” re-selected from the Auroch roots of the first Spanish cattle imported into the Southwest right after 1500. 250 years later (1750-1800) they had re-bred into beasts that could survive again in the wild against wolves, (a few bears) and their other prey.

      • RA ==> Just saw a herd of long-horns on pasture at a local dairy farm last week — truly LONG horns, too.

    • Not fuzzy but arbitrary. Nature neither knows not cares what we call stuff. Trying to defend or protect our own arbitrary definitions is bonkers and ultimately human-centric to an absurd degree.

      • Absurd in that we have no control overt hybridization, but not absurd when precise communication is required. Definitions are important.

      • Phoenix
        I fully agree.
        What happens – happens!
        If we humans (Homo sapiens – ‘wise man’ – self designated) need to get it right – well, so be it.

        What happens – happens!


    • Peter Lewis Hannan ==> Taxonomy has always been a bit nutty — useful in some ways, but abused in the sense of men trying to immortalize themselves by naming a “new species”.

      “Species” is a pretty dull and totally ignore-able topic until it starts to cause damage to society through the application of public policy based on a nonsensical, vague, fuzzy, not-strictly defined, and in many cases, plain wrong, concept. For instance in the Endangered Species Act and in the crazed environmental movements.

    • “the concept of species is fuzzy”

      Absolutely! I work in plant breeding where the definition of a species falls down completely. In addition to large amounts of inter-species hybridisation, there are intra-species incompatibility systems which prevent some crosses at a very basic level.

      However, the problem here goes well beyond the definition of this one word – species. The bigger problem is the misunderstanding of the concepts of biological diversity. There are three (at least) levels of biodiversity. The first is the oft-touted number of species metric, which can be sub-divided by geography into smaller and smaller regions (which enables people to laud any cause they want to this week by focusing on one particular region which is doing poorly/well depending on your cause – polar bear populations anyone?). The second level is the biodiversity within a species; how diverse is the population on a global and/or regional basis, which has important implications with regard to genetic changes and is often a major factor in “speciation” (whatever we mean by that). And the third – often forgotten level, is the genetic diversity in individuals within a population. This third one is probably the most often forgotten because – as animals – human beings do very very poorly with low genetic diversity in an individual and we forget that the animal kingdom is a outlier in this respect (compared to the vast majority of species and organisms in the plant and fungal kingdoms). A genetically diverse individual has a lot of options to survive in different environments or under changing conditions, whereas a low diversity individual that may be very well suited to one environment will struggle under different conditions.

      Now, level one – number of species – is easy to shout about, but completely irrelevant ecologically. The confusion over what constitutes a species makes the counting bit problematic in the first case and – from an ecological point of view – what we need is to make sure that each required niche in the living environment is being adequately filled, regardless of which species is filling it. This is the concept of ‘ecological services’ and if we have the loss of any particular species from an environment it will only have an impact on that environment if the ecological service provided by that species is lost. I don’t think it is hard to for people to realise that this is very rarely going to happen unless there is a very major and sudden event which removes that species as there are very likely to be other species which can perform the service, even if these are less efficient initially. [OK, we can probably come up with some examples of where this has happened, but in a big, very old world, this happens very rarely.]

      This is where the second and third levels of diversity are important – for another species to take over the role that the “extinct” species performed will probably require some kind of shift in the behaviour/metabolism of the new species. For this to happen, there needs to be diversity at the individual and population level such that there is an ability (for want of a better word) to change to take advantage of the new niche that has opened up.

      Thus what constitutes a “healthy” environment is not necessarily one with a lot of species diversity, but one in which there is a lot of diversity in the supply of ecological services, either through a diverse number of species, diversity within populations and/or diverse individuals within the population.

      Considered from this perspective, all the arguments about extinction are just ways to wind people up and set them going in whatever direction you want them to march this week.

      • RobP ==> And, in my opinion, this all results from sloppy science starting with a failure to establish a true definition of terms.

  4. Nicely done Kip.

    The species problem led to me investigating the process of speciation as the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book, Rhythms of Life (available still on Amazon). I asked: how, in strictly biological terms, could a wolf become a dog, or a brown bear become a polar bear? To answer those questions requires as much knowledge as possible about all four species (the ancestors and descendants).

    Which is how – and why – I became an expert via the scientific literature on polar bears as well as dogs (rarely mentioned is the corresponding expertise on brown bears and wolves, however).

    So you can perhaps understand my fascination with polar bear hybrids. In the context of your essay, the paper by Jodie Pongracz and colleagues in 2017 on the DNA analysis of eight known polar bear hybrids in the western Arctic is really interesting.

    As I point out in my State of the Polar Bear Report, those eight hybrids comprised the offspring of a single polar bear female that mated with two grizzly bear males, not widespread intermixing among the species.

    Four of these offspring were second generation backcross hybrids that were the result of the mating of at least two fertile female hybrids (who had been living on the ice like polar bears) with their own grizzly bear father.

    So rather than a widespread phenomenon, the spate of hybrid bears identified since 2006 derived from a single polar bear with what the authors called “atypical mating preferences.”

    In my report, see pg. 23: https://polarbearscience.com/2018/02/27/state-of-the-polar-bear-report-2017-shows-polar-bears-are-thriving/

    Pongracz, J.D., Paetkau, D., Branigan, M. and Richardson, E. 2017. Recent hybridization between
    a polar bear and grizzly bears in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic 70: 151–160.

    • those eight hybrids comprised the offspring of a single polar bear female that mated with two grizzly bear males, not widespread intermixing among the species.

      That sounds suspiciously like rape to me. Has #metoo been consulted?

      • There was no written agreement of consent, so it is possible that the males took part involuntarily, right? No I think this is not funny. Never joke on rape. I can tell you it’s not funny if you were previously targeted. #mydaughterisasnowflake #really

    • Dr. Crockford ==> Thank you for stopping by and filling us in on polar bear hybrids. I was only vaguely aware of the phenomena and will certainly chase up the references you give. I find thing whole segment of biology fascinating.

  5. Kip – I suppose that if Species Reversal resulted in loss of diversity from the gene pool, I could — if I tried hard — work up some concern about it. Does it result in that? Doesn’t seem so on the surface.

    Otherwise we’re just talking taxonomy — a field of study that any sensible person will avoid unless they enjoy pointless and often bitter arguments about stuff that no reasonable person could possibly care about.

    • If we’re talking about two breeding populations intermingling on the edges, then there can be no real effect on diversity. Sexual reproduction alone does not destroy genetic potential. This argument is basically the same as that of certain racists who are concerned that “miscegenation” will make blue eyed people go extinct. It ignores the known realities of how often recessive traits pop up in breeding populations.

      The so-called distinct species probably only arose out of geographic isolation removing certain genetic potentials from the genepools in the first place. What we’re really talking about is most likely a partial return to the original, more diverse genepool.

      It’s the same as basic animal husbandry. You develop a new breed by removing unwanted characteristics from the gene pool and only by carefully maintaining that genetic isolationism can you maintain the desired phenotypes. No new genetic potential is required. As soon as a bunch of different breeds are allowed to intermingle, the population will begin to trend back towards a generic mutt that is actually closer to the original population, but recessive traits will continue to arise from the population, likely with more actual diversity of phenotypes than any one of the segregated populations were capable of.

      The only reason “evolution” comes into the conversation at all is because certain people cling to a very narrow view of an evolution based creation myth.

      • I read something amusing yesterday as I was idly surfing the internet: Albinism – complete lack of melanin leading to white-blonde hair white skin and very pale blue eyes – is associated with inbreeding. It alos is bad news for anyone in a hot country.

        Could this be the ‘origin of the white races ‘ :-)

      • If the co-mingling at the edges remains constant, the changes will eventually diffuse through the entire population.

      • Aparition and Mark ==> See Dr. Crockford’s comment (here somewhere) about polar bear hybrids.

      • MarkW==> If co-mingling at the edges remains constantly at the edges, there is not necessarily any force that would drive it to intersperse throughout the entirety of both original populations. You may end up with two “pure” populations on the outskirts and clinal variation through the area where the two populations overlap. Without some external pressure for the hybridized offspring to travel away from the location of their birth, they would not necessarily pass their genetics on out into the rest of the population.

        This is basically what we observe between grizzly bears and polar bears. Occasional cross breeding at the overlap of their respective habitats with little reason for the hybrid offspring to travel away from the overlap zone. As you travel towards the grizzly side, the hybrids are more likely to breed with grizzlies and dilute the polar bear DNA. On the polar bear side, the opposite is true. The hybrids remain rare enough that breeding with another hybrid is relatively uncommon. Thus a genetic gradient forms along the pertinent geography.

      • Aparition and Mark ==> This is an interesting question, and depends on what has caused the differentiation. A genetic tweak that affects mating preferences? (Some start liking darker colored males…) feeding preferences? (some take a hankering to rose hips over raspberries, tend to hang out in rose tickets instead…)
        There are examples of evolution in both directions between species that inhabit the same territory — sympatric species — not just at the edges. some collapse into a single hybrid species, some into the two originals and a third hybrid, and some into a continuum of gradiently mixed hybrid-types.

      • Albinism – complete lack of melanin leading to white-blonde hair white skin and very pale blue eyes – is associated with inbreeding. It alos is bad news for anyone in a hot country.


        Yes, many types of albinism, including tyr gene’s albinism, may result in blue eyes, usually so that flashlight shows a stronger red reflex in the pupil than in usual highly pigmented eyes.

        Please don’t assume albinism is related to inbreeding. It is a fairly insulting assumption. Albinism in humans is most often compound heterozygous and having nothing to do with inbreeding. Some mutations or variations that are very common in some populations, have been multiplied by factors like genetic drift, and genetic advantage, or heterozygous advantage.

        Pigment by itself is not /so/ much a major skin cancer factor – but red-hair mitf variation with no eumelanin production is a really bad combination.

        It was Francis Cress Welsing (sp?), a pseudoscientific black racist who put forward the theory that Europeans are albinos. Well, it is just hate-speech. Besides, people who have albinism don’t like the albino-word. ‘Albino’ is a badly defined, multi-purpose word with evil connotations.

        This is one of the issues I take with passion.

      • And albinism doesn’t always mean completely but most often just near-completely melanin free melanocytes. Ocular albinism does not much affect on skin.

        The recent definition by Montoliu et al goes like this

        ‘Albinism is a rare genetic condition globally characterized by a number of specific deficits in the visual system, resulting in poor vision, in association with a variable hypopigmentation phenotype. This lack or reduction in pigment might affect the eyes, skin, and hair (oculocutaneous albinism, OCA), or only the eyes (ocular albinism, OA). In addition, there are several syndromic forms of albinism (e.g. Hermansky-Pudlak and Chediak-Higashi syndromes, HPS and CHS, respectively) in which the described hypopigmented and visual phenotypes coexist with more severe pathological alterations.’

        So the thing in albinism is the retina that develops the foveal pit poorly in absence of working melanocytes.

        However, the otic melanocytes do work in albinism, with the exception of Waardenburg and Tietz syndromes, where absent melanocytes may cause both hypopigmentation and deafness.

        Also, the brain has neuromelanin even when the skin does not have eumelanin.

      • ‘the otic melanocytes do work in albinism’

        I mean the cells don’t make much or any pigment, but they still allow normal hearing.

      • I believe the reason europeans have paler skin is because melatonin impairs the synthesis of Vitamin D. And since traditionally Europe receive less ultraviolet B radiation than Africa or Australia people with paler skin can produce enough vitamin D whereas people with darker skin cannot.

        It does not matter nowadays because we add vitamin D to some foods as a supplement and we eat more and better quality food. But in the XVIII century when slaves from Africa were taken to England, they used to suffer from ricketts or osteomalacia due to vitamin D deficiency.

        It is also one of the reasons that make me believe that the whole ozone hole theory is wrong. We see now that there is less ozone in the southern hemisphere than in the northern one, (The “ozone hole” is larger in the southern hemisphere) My theory is that is has been always that way, and the proof is the fact that Europeans have pale skin. It helps them to produce enough vitamin D in low ultraviolet B radiation conditions. The lack of ozone in the south is not a consequence of CFCs, it has been always been that way.

      • I believe the reason europeans have paler skin is because melatonin impairs the synthesis of Vitamin D.

        Not impairs. Melanin reduces vitamin D synthesis. Low-pigment skin reduces amount of folic acid. So there’s a balance to find.

        I said “MITF” above. It is MC1R gene of course.

      • Aparition42, there doesn’t need to be any force to cause dispersion. Just animals doing what is natural.

        imagine a 2 dimensional world with 2 species, A and B.


        Where A meets A, a prebred offspring results. Ditto where B meets B.
        However where A meets B, a mixbreed result AB is possible.
        Now in generation 2, the situation where A meets A and B meets B, will have the same result.
        However we have a new situation, the ABs in the middle could end up mating with other ABs, or they could end up mating with As or with Bs. It all depends on who meets who first.
        Each suceeding generation, the border of the mixbreeds will spread into the region of the purebreds.

        You don’t need a force to cause it. All you need is for genetically compatible animals to meet.

      • Hugs:

        How low pigment skin reduces the amount of folic acid?

        The only thing I see about folic acid is that is sensible to high heat and UV light, but as long as you eat your veggies without cooking them for too long I don’t see the link. Is folic acid accumulated in the skin? I thought it was stored in the liver and used in the bone marrow, mainly.

    • Don K ==> Agree — which is why I pose the question: “an existential threat to biological diversity on Earth? Or just a threat to the concepts of modern biology?”

      • More importantly, a threat to the funding stream and legacy of certain modern biologists.

    • Hugs, tty, Urederra – this is a nice little discussion of skin tone and its relationship to latitude, the sun, UV rays, vitamin D and folate.
      I’d say it’s a hypothesis that makes a lot of sense and has a fair bit of scientific evidence to back it up. It’s the kind of thing that, being an explanation for a past evolutionary event, can’t be replicated in any lab. Instead, circumstantial evidence is gathered to support the ideas. Is this adequate scientific methodology for the purposes of validating the hypothesis? Curious what you say.


      “It does not matter nowadays because we add vitamin D to some foods as a supplement and we eat more and better quality food. ”

      There has been a lot of evidence lately that people living in higher latitudes (such as the upper midwest U.S., where I live) benefit from Vitamin D supplementation above that obtained from food. Not only is the sun low here during the long winter, we also get almost none on our skin. I drink tons of milk, but I was taking supplements for a while.

    • Given the EPA and its application of the ESA, I think a “reasonable person,” especially a real estate developer, utility, or pipeline layer might find such bitter arguments relevant to their activities.

    • I have never understood the Anglosaxon way to demonize people with the MC1R red phenotype. It goes basically to the exact same slot as murdering people with OCA2 mutation in Tanzania. Tanzanians do it with exactly the same terminology – they don’t have a soul, they say.

      • Hugs .. not disagreeing with you in the least, but it’s (not really) funny how some people can hear something and understand it’s a joke while others of a certain disposition treat it as a roadmap.

        often it makes me wary of saying anything remotely vague around certain people. What springs to mind was me lending a movie tosomeone who returned it in disgust saying it was stupid. When I told him it was a comedy he looked of into the distance for a bit, sighed ‘aaaah’ .. and stared hard at the cover for a bit. He is one person I *never* share jokes around. As a teen I once told him cats were evil and found her a week later being quite cruel to a cat, his justification when challenged ‘but they’re evil’ (confused look).

        This person isn’t mentally dim, however frighteningly, they are now a teacher.

  6. I recently argued that we’ve got evolution wrong. It’s not survival of the fittest, but survival of the luckiest, because it is normally just pure chance that means an individual survives, and we can tell why individuals die, but we have no idea why an individual survives.

    Likewise, new species don’t evolve because they are better adapted, in contrast, new species are almost invariably LESS WELL adapted – because they tend to start inhabiting new evolution niches for which their present traits make them less than ideal. And if that sub-population is continually being diluted by individuals from the parent population, then they will continue to be ill-adapted.

    To use a simple example. If you keep animals in a zoo, pretty soon the ones that are ill-adapted to living in small pens and fed by eco-monkeys, will die off leaving the ones who are better suited to zoos. So, what do the eco-monkeys do then? They re-introduce wild caught individuals who are entirely unsuited to zoos to dilute the gene pool and turn them all into genetic wrecks.

    So, all this eco-monkey non-science of “connecting up populations”, may be causing extinction. Because it may be bringing in individuals that whilst they can out compete the native population in good years (and dilute the gene pool), their genetics are not suited to the lean years, with the result that their genes push the local populations who need to be isolated to survive to the brink of extinction.

    • Without wanting to fuel the fires of evolution-den|3rs, Part of the issue with evolution is the many assumptions made with little too no evidence backing it. Darwin did publish it as a theory after all. Put it this way, biologists dash about slapping their names on every bug and beast they find and they rely on various dichotomies to justify the differentiation. We also know from the fossil record things today ain’t what they were in the past.. so assumptions are rightly made that things were this, then became that – and from this a rather nice theory about divergent evolution came into being. Yet in all the time we’ve bred rabbits, mice and cultures of microorganisms, we’ve never seen one beastie go in and a different one come out. Sure the media love to report ‘EVOLUTION IS MAKING PEOPLE FATTER’ or some other drivel but sorry journalist clods, the species isn’t changing. The less fat humans readily breed with the larger ones – we’re the same species – there is NO evolution in play.

      Which led me one day to wonder, having just read of a peculiar genus-cross (birds) between two rather differently sized parents whether evolution might not be driven less by divergence and more by convergence ? I reflected on the countless plant hybrids I just accepted without even thinking what this meant, and since then looking around I’ve found hybrids DO have a place in altering species populations and distributions, and now more than ever I wonder whether the concept of evolution needs a fresh viewing.

      • Darwin’s theory of pangenesis was hopelessly off base. Like all science, there’s a big difference between actual working practitioners and the lay cultists who believe that science supports whatever faith they hold. If it weren’t for the fact that Darwin has such faithful publicists and apologists he’d be no more fondly remembered than J. J. Becher, the founder of phlogiston theory.

      • Karlos,

        Thanks for this and your other comments and links to that bizarre website regarding hybrids. The graphic layout of which is beyond comprehension, and far more difficult to come to terms with than the central hypothesis. Very interesting and likely not far from the truth in my opinion. I have also veered toward your opinion about evolution being driven by convergence as well as the traditional gradual divergence, or gradual refinement. My view was much influenced by Stephen J Gould who found it difficult to understand the pervasive stability of species in the geological record over millions of years with gradual evolution through mutations in genes – he came up with punctuated equilibrium in response. I was also interested in butterflies, starfish and other animals which appear to be straightforward compositions of multiple lifeforms, as well as the accepted convergence which produced the eukaryote cell, and the chlorophyl producing cells, apparently in several different iterations for fungi. There are so many examples of cooperation and partial convergence. So yes I think you are correct – we should focus on convergence and cooperation as much as divergence and competition as evolutionary drivers.

      • @Jay Willis;

        When I first came upon Gould’s punctuated equilibrium hypothesis I was hugely entertained. Here was the nemesis of creationists everywhere basically saying, “And then, a miracle happens.” All his verbal hand-waving aside, that’s more or less what it amounts to.

      • D J, Yes you have a point, regardless of the fact that he didn’t have a complete explanation for why or how punctuated equilibrium happened – he still identified the fact that it did. He certainly didn’t say a mircle happened (that’s your idea), he just showed that the transitions were steps rather than a smooth continuum. As a great scientist, he didn’t feel it necessary to provide an explanation for everything, but suggested many potential alternative hypotheses and weighed the likelihood of these against a considerable amount of evidence that he described. But there is still much to learn about evolution.

      • One also has to consider that Steven Jay Gould was on the side of “lumpers” as far as differentiating species.

      • “Darwin’s theory of pangenesis was hopelessly off base.”

        Well, yes. But Darwin, Wallace and a few others had to fight their way upstream through a torrent of Creationism. And genetics wasn’t really solidly formulated until a couple of decades after Darwin’s death. Early evolutionists didn’t have much of a foundation to build on when it came to how natural selection might work.

    • Read Ringworld, where aliens have been breeding humans for luck (by introducing a lottery for having additional children) for centuries.

      But no, evolution overcomes luck.

      • There was another book (“Master of the 5 Magics” perhaps?)
        The hero’s spent time on a planet where believed that actions could influence your luck. Black cats, walking under ladders, etc.
        The powerful on this world conducted experiments where they would have slaves engage in various activities thought to influence luck, then put them into life or death situations to see how many of them survived.

    • To make sense of this failed theory of Darwin’s, Dr. Steven G. Meyers’ “Darwin’s Doubt” is a must read. It keeps one from making foolish comments on the subject, as exhibited in this article and many of the comments that followed.

    • Evolution may be called “survival of the fittest” but it can equally well be described as “perishing of the unfit”.

      • Ellen ==> I usually think of it in terms of “survival of the survivors” knowing that the survivors might be surviving in spite of otherwise non-survival characteristics.

        I have watched a male Pin-tailed Whydah, with its ridiculously long breeding-season tail feathers, struggling to take off from the ground — where it was at risk of being eaten by cats and dogs. It finally made it, but that long tail is not a survival enhancement for them. Despite the oddity, it has survived….

      • fit or unfit, everybody dies eventually. The difference is, some reproduce, some don’t. Having offspring seems the hardest part, so hard it makes sense to risk premature death for a better mating chance (for males).

    • I recently argued that we’ve got evolution wrong. It’s not survival of the fittest, elimination of the utterly incompetent or unlucky.


      Unfortunately, as I have pointed out, this leads to the worst of all possible worlds: Humanity en masse is only just clever enough to stay alive and have moronic kids, a fact which can be verified by a visit to any supermarket on Saturday morning.

      • Leo, instead of thinking of it as the worst of all possible worlds, maybe you should start thinking of it as the only possible world.

        Once you identify a problem, those willing to provide a “solution” are legion.

    • Scottish ==> I don’t disagree — survival of those that survived, really. Whatever survived, that’s what we’ve got (at any moment in time). Darwinistic “just so stories” are used to explain away the existence of obviously disadvantageous traits surviving.

      • Darwin, like most academics of his day and long before, believed in the inheritance of acquired traits and his pangenesis hypothesis was created to explain a method for how that would work. His trait carrying “gemmules” were supposed to be affected by the environment and pass those changes on to offspring, and thus, over time, lead to species adapted to their environment. Practically everything that Darwin actually contributed was superseded more than 100 years ago.

        Observation shows survival of the “fit enough”. Anything that can just get by without dying before breeding has a good shot at surviving. Actual survival of the fittest would ultimately lead to less diversity rather than more as genetic game theory would favor those creatures with the greatest range of survivable environments. Over the millennial cycles of hot and cold, dry and wet, feast and famine, creatures which rely on some niche or other would be much less likely to persist for the long-haul.

      • @Aparition42
        “Actual survival of the fittest would ultimately lead to less diversity rather than more”
        AND this is exactly what happens, actually. When “fit” is simple, that is, when the fit is determined by the non living environment. Boreal forest has very poor diversity. Some patch are populated by a single tree clone, few bushes, a couple of herbivores species, and a couple of carnivores specie. Few birds and small mammals. And that’s it.
        However, most of the time, fit is not that simple, because the current living forms (not the climate) are the environment. So as soon as a specie has some success, some other species will take advantage, and so on.
        Red Queen Race, as Lewis Caroll put it in Darwin Time. And this brings diversity.

      • Aparition42

        “Observation shows survival of the “fit enough”. Anything that can just get by without dying before breeding has a good shot at surviving. Actual survival of the fittest would ultimately lead to less diversity rather than more as genetic game theory would favor those creatures with the greatest range of survivable environments.”

        There are many evolutionary strategies explored through game theory. No one strategy is applicable to all species in all situations.

        From a theoretical genetic perspective, the gene variants (alleles) that are passed on most from one generation to the next are more likely to become fixed in a population (all individuals will have that allele). It is therefore important how many copies get passed on, not just whether any copies do – survival of the fttest is not the same as survival of the fit enough.

        “Practically everything that Darwin actually contributed was superseded more than 100 years ago.”

        What? Natural selection is still a mainstay of evolutionary theory. I don’t understand this comment at all.

        “Darwin’s theory of pangenesis was hopelessly off base. Like all science, there’s a big difference between actual working practitioners and the lay cultists who believe that science supports whatever faith they hold.”

        It doesn’t matter than part of this theory was wrong. That in no way devalues other contributions he made.

        This is another statement I don’t understand. What theory do you think the “cultists” support?

    • This could be a problem, since according to the ESA, you are only permitted to breed with another self-identified Neanderthal.

  7. Arguing that humans are altering human-created arbitrary definitions known only to humans is the ultimate in narcissistic science.

  8. I am all for speciation reversal if it involves only greenies and climate scientists. after all that is what they want to do to those of still with a semblance of common sense.

    • No no! They must become a separate species so they can go extinct!

      We dont need that level of moronicity back in the gene pool!

  9. I think that the basic problem is: are species natural units that would exist even if we didn’t or are they arbitrary units defined by people? I was trained in the Biological Species Concept (BSC), one of the more extreme ‘natural unit’ hypotheses and the dominant one in text books and among most vertebrate biologists until recently. No hybridising is allowed, because, well it is just wrong and will be punished by a variety of pre-mating, post-mating, etc. sanctions. When I got stuck teaching species concepts I had to read more widely and realised that the BSC is BS. It doesn’t even apply very well to the birds and mammals that Mayr used to derive it. Hybridisation between what we think of as distinct species is common. Botanist gave up the BSc long ago because reticulate evolution (i.e. a net-like transfer of genes among lineages) is extraordinarily common. Last I checked, 70% of extant grass species were thought to have a hybrid origin, many from intergeneric crosses (including wheat). That is what happens when you cast your pollen (sperm) on the wind for whatever receptive receptacle it may fall on. There is no gene police to stop hybridisation: if a hybrid is fertile (and ‘mules’ are not a necessary result of hybridisation) and can make a success of life, then it will be favoured and its descendants will persist, possibly as what we would consider a different species or just some new and useful genes added to an existing species population (i.e. hybrid vigour).

    So, anyway, to make a long story short, I’ve come to agree with Darwin: species are more or less arbitrary and human defined (‘nominalism’). If someone thinks giving a population a species name useful – for any reason including preserving a unique genetic population of lizards on an island – then someone can propose that hypothesis. If you don’t like it, then you can try to shoot it down. Nature is far more complex than our understanding of it and it doesn’t follow human rules.

    • Self proclaimed “science” is strangely full of people who declare something a fact and in the face of contradiction, claim that it is the world that is wrong.

      Rather than claiming that species frequently hybridize, isn’t it just as accurate to say that we were wrong about what was or was not part of the same species? Just look at the diversity that human beings were able to create in dogs in just a very short time with deliberate selective breeding. There’s no reason not to assume that a similar process gives rise to variants and breeds within a species when a population gets geographically isolated or subjected to some other form of natural selection on a local scale.

      Imagine if Chihuahuas were only found on a small island for years. If we suddenly discovered that they could be bred with labradores, would we decide that this was a new hybrid of two species or admit that we had been wrong to call them two distinct species in the first place?

      • I absolutely agree that it is wrong to speak of separate species when crossbreeding is able to produce viable offspring. Clearly, the parents are not separate species. The proof is in the offspring.

        If it is acceptable to call the beefalo a hybrid species as a result of the crossbreeding of the cattle species with the bison species, then we are forced to call the chiweenie a hybrid species as a result of the crossbreeding of the chihuahua species with the dachshund species.

        Please note that the production of a new dog breed involves isolating a particular subset of genes out of the complete set of dog genes at large. What we mean by “purebred” is that a dog has only 1 option within its genetic makeup for each of the traits used to identify its breed. Within each breed genetic diversity has been culled. Breeding one purebred breed with a different purebred breed doesn’t eliminate diversity, it conserves it. Each chiweenie contains the genetics of both a chihuahua and a dachshund. A mutt contains the genetic makeup of many dog breeds. Perhaps a wolf contains the genetic makeup of all dog breeds.

        Ergo, distress over hybridization eliminating species is pointless, as no genetic diversity has been lost – the DNA codes are still there.


  10. Well, this article brings back memories. As a young biologist years (I mean decades) ago, my study of evolution and genetics was fascinating and a challenge to my mother who was convinced that I may be on the road to Hades. E. C. Pielou’s book, Evolution in a Changing Environment, and previous work were hot topics as were debates about natural selection vs. evolution, mutation rates and the like. And nothing like mixing religion, science and family dynamics! Importantly, we should note that the concept of “species” is strictly a human definition (and, perhaps necessary as a currency for biological research and discussion); however, Nature does not care about our definition, caring only to use available resources to fill niches particularly as they undergo change. (Side note: my faith remained intact but I keep it separate from my scientific curiosity and allow the two to proceed unhindered by the other.)

    But, Kip is correct that the “legal” definition of “species” and how they “come and go” is important because of governmental mandates. Newly minted degree in hand, I jumped into the just slightly older NEPA waters followed closely by ESA and the studies required for existing and proposed Nuclear Generating Stations. Interesting times, they were.

    Kip, an interesting article!

    • Glad to see E. C. Pielou mentioned. She is often overlooked and I don’t know why. She has done some very remarkable work and communicated it to the layperson. For example, the chapter on the Migration of Vegetation in her book After The Ice Age is a powerful testament to the changing climate, and all backed by huge amounts of scientific inquiry.

      • Yes, her research and books on mathematical ecology broke much ground. Her book, Ecological Diversity, was my introduction to her thoughts.

        And just did a Google search on “Evolution in a Changing Environment” (which may have been one of her papers rather than a book) and on the first page of results is Kip’s article on WUWT.

      • Good point. I have a picture of two whooping cranes when they were less than 10% of the total known population. Now they hang around porches. They, like most species, have potential problems, even without humans. Rare (ly found?) “species” are often listed in some dire category, sometimes by states. This sometimes is for populations at the edge of their range, which has fluctuating limiting factors that establish the edge, hence the rarity. The question of rarity goes way back, maybe to Haldane, J. B. S. 1932. “The Causes of Evolution.” Princeton Univ. Press. Rare species have even been suggested to possibly be more ‘fit.’ Big populations attract lots of competitors, predators and parasites.

        During the glacial periods in North America, species formed by separation of populations pushed down into Florida and Mexico is being potentially reversed as they spread back north. This is occurring in groups from marine fishes to palm trees with interesting genetic combinations.

        Successful species are good at hiding, even from collectors.

    • JRF ==> Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for relating your your personal story — (btw, I totally agree with your “side note” — science will eventually catch up. )

  11. in america you can cross species of snakes and get some staggeringly coloured n patterned offspring
    in aus its an offence to cross any type at all
    and yet? it would rarely happen but may well do so in natural settings
    i wonder how our wildlife purist rangers would handle such rare finds should they fall over them?
    meanwhile the incoming solar radiation may well infuence some gene changes also
    be interesting to see what happens

    • “I wonder how our wildlife purist rangers would handle such rare finds should they fall over them?”

      Depends on what would make the most money. Either they declare it a rare species that needs protection, or they declare it an evil “invasive species” that needs to be eradicated.

      Either way, it will require the government to funnel money to a bunch of biologists that otherwise would be working in fast food. As much as biologists go on about natural processes of selection, they sure do spend a lot of time and resources trying to fight them.

    • ozspeaksup ==> You’re talking about the mutant herpt breeding hobby? Albino milk snakes, blond boas, etc. Yes, quite a bit of madness in that — we have huge reptile shows in shopping malls selling all these fancy snakes and lizards and frogs…..

      I don’t really approve — herpts are much harder to properly house and maintain than most people think, and a lot are bought sand die within a year, or released into the wild.

  12. Nice thought provoking article, Kip. I can’t help but be amused when some people get tangled in the underwear of 18th century systematics. It is useful only to a point. Biology has become a pretty exciting science now that we really know what genetics are present in populations. But, what we know doesn’t always return a clarifying result. Colorado discovered a, shall we call it, strain of rainbow trout in a deep canyon on the Gunnison River that was resistant to whirling disease, which normally is debilitating and lethal to young trout. Having never been exposed to whirling disease in the genetic history of the trout, it was expected to eventually eliminate the non native species without some sort of human intervention. But, natural selection, chugging along as it does, had already intervened on behalf of the trout. Without any human help the trout were well on their way to generating an newly adapted form. Similarly, in reference to what is happening with wolves and coyotes, one of the big problems with both the “red” wolf and “Mexican grey” wolf is their propensity to bread with whatever canine is available. Problematic for ESA advocates, I would say. I have seen photographs of some eastern “coyotes” that make you stop and ask; what the hell is that, really? Some are blends of dogs and probably some wolf but more likely a cocktail of genetics that is rapidly adjusting to living in a world dominated by humans. And, as always, the natural selection just keeps chugging along. The problem for most humans is linear thinking, i.e. always in one direction. I think it is genetic.

    • Reminds me of the tragic tale of how interventionists decimated the north American elm tree population in their attempts to save it from dutch elm disease before they even really knew how dutch elm was transmitted. I’ve always wondered whether elms would be more common today had they left well enough alone and just allowed selective breeding to take its course.

      • Aparition42 ==> Good question. I am following Cornell’s development of the blight-resistant American Chestnut — soon to be released.

    • Steve ==> Thank you — that’s interesting about the trout. I personally follow the attempts and successes of restoring a native population of naturally blight resistant pure-bred American Chestnuts trees.
      I agree with you about the wolves and coyotes and dogs — probably all varieties of the same “species” (by the breeding rule anyway.)

    • Steve Lohr

      ” Similarly, in reference to what is happening with wolves and coyotes, one of the big problems with both the “red” wolf and “Mexican grey” wolf is their propensity to bread with whatever canine is available. Problematic for ESA advocates, I would say. I have seen photographs of some eastern “coyotes” that make you stop and ask; what the hell is that, really? Some are blends of dogs and probably some wolf but more likely a cocktail of genetics that is rapidly adjusting to living in a world dominated by humans. And, as always, the natural selection just keeps chugging along. The problem for most humans is linear thinking, i.e. always in one direction. I think it is genetic.”

      This is an interesting comment. It illustrates that there are sometimes drawbacks with hybridization. Another example is when hybrid plants are extremely good at outcompeting others and become invasive – sometimes even though they are sterile.

      I haven’t read much about the wolf/coyote story, but it seems on the surface ill-conceived.

      It’s important, i think, to realize that although the ESA has its problems, that doesn’t make it useless. Some of these problems – like the ambiguity of definitions – are unavoidable simply due to the nature of the subject. Because the ESA has different levels of threat, these may be taken into consideration; that would also affect policy based on ESA.

      “The problem for most humans is linear thinking, i.e. always in one direction. I think it is genetic.”
      Yes, I think you’re probably right, at least to some degree – and even that can have its benefits. It helps us make decisions, for one thing, rather than be stuck considering every alternative and meanwhile getting eaten (or spending twice as long as necessary grocery shopping, as I do). But if this is a genetic predisposition, that may mean some people are more likely than others to think linearly. People who naturally think creatively (good at identifying alternatives) may be drawn to professions like science – hypothetically speaking.

      “While no single “creative” part of the brain has been revealed, what is increasingly understood is that novel thinking generally engages a unique and broad configuration of brain regions that don’t typically work together.”
      https://newatlas.com/creative-throught-brain-activity-networks/53025/ (This is just an single example of related research)
      Trout and whirling disease…
      “Colorado discovered a, shall we call it, strain of rainbow trout in a deep canyon on the Gunnison River that was resistant to whirling disease, which normally is debilitating and lethal to young trout. Having never been exposed to whirling disease in the genetic history of the trout, it was expected to eventually eliminate the non native species without some sort of human intervention. But, natural selection, chugging along as it does, had already intervened on behalf of the trout. Without any human help the trout were well on their way to generating an newly adapted form. ”

      I don’t understand. Which trout haven’t been exposed?

      This is a complex situation illustrating some of the problems with moving species (sp/spp sing/pl) around – spread of pathogens and other invasive species is a major issue, with huge economic and ecological consequences. Rainbow trout (RT) have been introduced beyond their native range and in some cases outcompete native fish spp., causing their numbers to decline. Then you have the introduction and spread of whirling disease (WD), possibly aided through release of hatchery production. WD is especially hard on RT, causing its decline in their native and introduced habitats. Not only that, but it’s such a good carrier that it may increase the disease load for other sp simply through the increased prevalence of the parasites. Increased disease load can lead to stress and/or death.

      Now there’s this resistant strain. The obvious thing to do is to spread the strain to combat the disease – but the risk is that the new strain will become so good a competitor in relation to the native non-RT species, still bearing the disease load, that RT will take over.

      Another strategy is to try to introduce the resistant genes into other species. This would be more expensive, but considering the economic impact of the industry may be justified.

      Interesting. I wonder what they’ll do.

      From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_trout#Range
      “This parasite [WD = M. cerebralis] was originally a mild pathogen of brown trout in central Europe and other salmonids in northeast Asia, and the spread of the rainbow trout has greatly increased its impact. Having no innate immunity to M. cerebralis, rainbow trout are particularly susceptible, and can release so many spores that even more resistant species in the same area, such as Salmo trutta, can become overloaded with parasites and incur mortalities of 80 to 90 percent. Where M. cerebralis has become well-established, it has caused decline or even elimination of whole cohorts of fish.”

      • The trout that was most affected by WD is the non native transplanted rainbow trout, of which most were propagated from stocks taken from a river in Northern California. There is no whirling disease there, at least to my knowledge, and therefore no prior exposure in it’s native range. With the random propagation and stocking of fish from one source to another over the past 100 years plus there are probably very few pure stocks out there. Yes, rainbow trout have been carried everywhere. They are even in Scandinavia, which poses an interesting question relevant to your remarks about whirling disease. Brown trout are resistant, or at least they have been exposed to it enough that they can manage it under some circumstances. I don’t know enough about the prevalence of WD in Northern Europe but I am curious about the rainbow trout fisheries there. I would expect there is either a “resistant” strain there or they are in a perpetual restocking program. Just as a side note, while rainbow trout are still caught regularly in the upper Colorado and other well fished areas, there has been a decline of fish, but stocking of “clean” fish has continued, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. There are cutthroats too and there are some locations that do indeed have abundant populations of these native fish but they are in isolated and well protected drainage or reservoirs. Colorado has quite a cocktail of trout genetics in it’s rivers. I wonder what it will look like in a thousand years.

  13. So my little frog with the red spot will intermingle with the little frog with the blue spot and this is how mass extinctions happen?

    • Bob ==> The amphibians are dying from herpetologist-spread Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or chytrid fungus. Over-ehtusiasm and lack of basic infectious-disease hygiene by herpetologists spread the deadly plague to even the remotest corners of the Earth.

      • Kip – I want a reference for that! I’m very skeptical of that assertion. You would have to show that the fungus could have been spread no other way, that it was introduced to an area only after the herpetologists had been there, identify the systematic poor hygiene that spread it. Is this attributed to all herpetologists, or a given lab, or what?

        There are so many other possibilities, this would be a very hard assertion to validate. This is especially true in the case of such an opportunist – a pathogen not confined to one or a few species, or even to amphibians…
        “Field surveys in Louisiana and Colorado revealed that zoosporangia occur within crayfish gastrointestinal tracts, that B. dendrobatidis prevalence in crayfish was up to 29%, and that crayfish presence in Colorado wetlands was a positive predictor of B. dendrobatidis infections in cooccurring amphibians. In experiments, crayfish, but not mosquitofish, became infected with B. dendrobatidis, maintained the infection for at least 12 wk, and transmitted B. dendrobatidis to amphibians. Exposure to water that previously held B. dendrobatidis also caused significant crayfish mortality and gill recession”

      • Kristi ==> I’ll have to get back to you on that — I’m working in a different direction this week. There was a study that correlated herpetologists visits to an area with the later outbreak of the disease — the researchers in those days (this was early 2000s) did not ever sterilize their equipment or clothing, backpacks, collection bins, not anything
        They have since realized this an there are many current papers on strict protocols to prevent this type of spread of amphibian diseases. I wrote up the study years and years ago — but my reference is no longer at my fingertips.

      • (Kip – I don’t mean “you” as in you specifically would have to demonstrate that stuff, just that someone would.)

  14. So basically they are pretending that there were.two species in the first place when it was just minor differences of the same breed. Sorta like seeing a Siamese cat and a Russian blue and pretending they are different species and then being shocked – just shocked that they can breed.

  15. The real root of the issue is the fact that “species” is a meaningless term. I distinctly remember that it used to mean any group of animals that could successfully interbreed. There’s three major problems with that simple definition that leads to biologists rejecting it.

    1) You only get your name in the history books for discovering new species, not subtle variants.

    2) Thousands of protected “species” would no longer seem worth protecting if the general public knew that they’re practically indistinguishable from more common species (and the government money would thus dry up).

    3) Many famous experiments that “prove evolution”, would just be lame examples of basic animal husbandry applied to fruit flies if it weren’t for the ability to subtly redefine what a species is halfway through the experiment.

    Biologists are no less susceptible to the lure of fame, fortune, and glory than anyone else. So long as we glorify the discovery of new species, they will be unwilling to apply any solid limitations to what constitutes a new species.

  16. Kip, this little essay is just the tip of a very big iceberg. In some ways we still don’t really understand how life works. Amazing to realize this after all the thunderously pronounced “consensus science” about it.

    Now that we can actually sequence genomes it should be unnecessary to retain all the hoary myths about taxonomy and speciation. “Race” and all that. But they are cooked into beliefs that have nothing to do with science, and are part of the world view of many who don’t understand the science at all, so we are stuck with them. Belief trumps fact.

    Recently they sent an “identical twin” into space, and found that his genes were expressed differently when he returned. No longer “identical”, though really twin studies show that this happens often even without exposure to the radiation rich environment of space.

    Every year we have to deal with new “strains” of the flu, and it turns out that the little viruses can get together and exchange genes, creating new varieties.

    Most people have one to three percent Neanderthal genes. Those that don’t descend from ancestors that never left Africa.

    Really the things that make us seem different from each other are much less important than the things we have in common. Including this incredible blue planet.

    • Bruce ==> In my most honest moments, I might go a little further than your “In some ways we still don’t really understand how life works.” I might say “Science does not yet really understand what life is.”

  17. Everyone should take the words of the late, great environmentalist, George Carlin, on how to deal with Darwin:

  18. Kip, an example of hybridisation putting at risk a breed of animal is the Scottish wildcat. http://www.scottishwildcats.co.uk/ . Interbreeding with feral domesticated cats means they may soon disappear as a separate entity. As a general observation on the ability of creatures to mutate I would suggest that when sub species hybridise , the mutations that originally made them distinct are not entirely lost . This is why every now and then a throwback will be produced, not a new mutation but simply a rediscovery of the latent gene. When the environment undergoes a rapid change, these throwbacks, which previously may have found themselves at a disadvantage, may now be more suited to their surroundings than their siblings. Just Nature doing what Nature does best.

    • The only real difference is a bizarre insistence that anything involving humans is somehow “unnatural”. The Scottish wildcat is likely nothing more than the genetic progeny of feral domestic cats brought to Scotland by humans long ago. Under slightly different circumstances it would be declared an invasive species and maligned for its effect on local bird and rodent populations.

      The haphazard way that people pick and choose which variants they want to preserve and which ones they want to eradicate has a lot more to do with philosophy and personal opinion than it does with science of any discipline. History is much shorter than most people want to admit, and the specific histories of individual breeds of animals is often even shorter. What evidence is there that the Scottish wildcat was around 10,000 years ago? What makes this feral cat of more value than feral tabbies that are routinely gathered up and “euthanized”? All to often terms like “natural” and “unnatural” are just epithets tossed around to justify our desire to express our personal preference.

      • “.The Scottish wildcat is likely nothing more than the genetic progeny of feral domestic cats brought to Scotland by humans long ago.”

        It isn’t. It has been around since the early Holocene, long before there were domestic cats.

      • tty ==> Yeah, but with all things taxonomic, there is this: “Like other wildcat subspecies, the Scottish wildcat is readily capable of interbreeding with domestic cats, and such interbreeding has given rise to a feline landrace (a ‘natural breed’) called the Kellas cat.” (wiki)

      • Estimates of when cats were domesticated go back to 12,000 years, and thus predate the Holocene. Of course there’s just as much a chance of that estimate being wrong as the ones tty chooses to go with. My point is that we don’t know, so we choose to believe one based more on what we want to be true than on evidence.

        Either way, it’s just a cat. The choice to act as though Scottish wildcats are special among European wildcats is an arbitrary enough decision to question the special effort put into their survival. The way I see it, if we just let the feral domestic cat population alone for long enough, we’d no longer have a shortage of wildcats. It’s human emotional baggage that leads us to put heroic efforts into protecting the one and eliminating the other. Nothing to do with science at all.

      • Aparitio42 ==> Now, don’t say that! The Scotts will go all BraveHeart on us.
        I once made the mistake of saying to someone (who had a strong opinion of their own) that the Bison was “just another caw”.

      • Aparition42
        “Either way, it’s just a cat. The choice to act as though Scottish wildcats are special among European wildcats is an arbitrary enough decision to question the special effort put into their survival. The way I see it, if we just let the feral domestic cat population alone for long enough, we’d no longer have a shortage of wildcats. It’s human emotional baggage that leads us to put heroic efforts into protecting the one and eliminating the other.”

        Extrapolating on this idea, you might as well have one type cat in the whole world. Do you believe this wouldn’t be a loss in terms of the ecological functions of the different cat species?

        “Nothing to do with science at all.”

        This is untrue. The problems associated with feral cats are well-demonstrated through science. They have caused extinctions on islands and contributed to endangering/extirpating others on continents.

        ” On Macquarie Island, for example, feral cats are implicated in the sharp decline of a subspecies of the red-fronted parakeet in the 1880s and its extinction by 1891. On the mainland [Australia], they are identified as a threat to 35 species of birds, 36 mammals, 7 reptiles and 3 amphibians…. Feral cats can carry infectious diseases such as toxoplasmosis and sarcosporidiosis, which can be transmitted to native animals, domestic livestock and humans. If rabies were to be accidentally introduced into Australia, there is a high risk that feral cats would act as carriers of the disease. ”

        The counter-argument in some of these cases is that they are based on correlations such as higher cat populations lead to greater species declines. However, when there are enough correlations to rule out other factors, it is a pretty good bet that the effect is real.

        “Either way it’s just a cat” is a very poor argument. Populations of native species are more likely to be kept in check by native predators, pathogens and habitat requirements. They are part of the native ecosystem and fill a particular niche. That doesn’t mean that natives aren’t able to adapt to human-caused ecosystem change, but some are better able than others. To simply write off any that can’t adapt, or can’t compete with non-natives risks losing species that are important to maintaining ecological services or products. For instance, invasive species (pathogens, insects and competing plants) in forests are having enormous economic impacts on forestry production. Some weeds directly change ecosystem properties, such as nutrient cycling and fire regimes. Invasive plants can make ponds and lakes inhospitable to native plants and animals or even make them hypoxic.

        (Ecology of invasive species happen to be my area of expertise.)

      • “Invasive species” is the most ridiculous, unscientific concept ever promulgated. Invasive since when? The ideal is an ecosystem ever “in balance,” nothing new, nothing obliterated? Human beings are actors external to ecological systems, so only “we” can be the cause of “invasive” species?

        Evolution itself is a parade of species “invading” hither and yon.

        I get it if you don’t want a certain species in your area because it has what you feel are undesirable characteristics, but “invasive?”

        And don’t get me started on “biological diversity,” another bankrupt notion. If nature can re-speciate after the Permian and the Cretaceous extinctions, then it’s highly unlikely humankind will have much detrimental impact on the biosphere. It certainly has not done so to date. In fact, it’s likely humankind will create more new different species in the next 50 years than it has ever wiped out in the last 1,000.

      • JPMiller – Yes, invasive.

        Invasive since when?
        >>> Usually introduced to new habitat, but there are a few native invasive species.
        The ideal is an ecosystem ever “in balance,” nothing new, nothing obliterated?
        >>> No, that’s not what “in balance” means at all. It’s called dynamic equilibrium.
        Human beings are actors external to ecological systems, so only “we” can be the cause of “invasive” species?
        >>> We are not external to ecological systems, of course not. But we affect them like no other species has. Yes, we are usually the cause of invasive species. The species aren’t usually invasive in their native habitat, but the biological restraints are lost in a new one. Or we create invasive species by breeding them. Ornamental plants escape cultivation and become invasive. It costs hundreds billions of dollars a year in lost productivity and control. Weeds, pests, pathogens, vertebrates can all be invasive and very destructive.

        But I’m wasting my time, aren’t I?

    • Bloke ==> Thanks for the example of the scottish wildcat. I’ll have to dig into that story a little more…..do you know if the “wildcat” is just very early on feral escaped cats brought by the Romans of the Vikings?

      • “do you know if the “wildcat” is just very early on feral escaped cats brought by the Romans of the Vikings?”

        It isn’t. You don’t have to believe all the nonsense spouted here. The oldest english record from this interglacial is probably Thatcham, Berkshire, about 11,000 years ago. That is about 9,000 years before the Romans, and 5-6,000 years before the cat was domesticated in Egypt. I said “this interglacial” because it was in England during the Ipswichian interglacial as well (Joint Mitnor Cave).

      • From what I’ve heard it’s not descended from domesticated cats but my knowledge doesn’t extend much beyond what you’ll find in the link I gave.

  19. Hmmm…so are they saying that humans, not the animals themselves, should always decide a given animal’s choice of mate?

    That obviously makes sense when humans are selectively breeding animals to serve a specific purpose (which is usually serving a specific human purpose). But I’m not sure that we are yet smart enough to decide which mating partners will best suit the long term viability of a species. After all, many ‘purebreds’ may serve the human purposes very well, but are often prone to inbred diseases and afflictions that actually render the animals hopelessly dependent on continuing human support.

    Directed evolution is an extremely powerful technique, but the directors aren’t always aware of everything they are selecting for, or everything they need to be selecting for. The best selector for the natural environment is still often…the natural environment.

    And then there’s the philosophical side: Do species have any kind of a right to carry on existing if they can only do it with human support? There is an infinity of possible species and we, and the planet, cannot support all of them.

  20. The issue is what definition of “species” is applicable under the Endangered Species Act. The bureaucrats enforcing the Act are extreme “splitters” apparently, using cases like the purported Red Wolf. How one counts species does matter with the legal process.
    As another example, the Spotted Owl is purportedly at risk of interbreeding with the Barred Owl. If they do form one breeding population, are they actually different species? If one is with the Fish and Wildlife Service, apparently that does not matter.

    • The seventy odd Puget Sound Orcas are a distinct population, based on their language and culture.

      As such they need to be listed (not).

      If they all disappeared by the end of next year, and another group of Orcas moved in we would forever lose the very important & irretrievable connection to the research that has been done with respect to the distinct culture/language of this ESA distinct species.

      Although, it would take decades and decades to research the new pod to see if they were more advanced (culturally) and how this related to their linguist abilities. Hmmm… seems that there may be a golden grant lining.

      • DonM “If they all disappeared by the end of next year… seems that there may be a golden grant lining.”

        This is such a crass statement. Why is it that so many people think of scientists in such mercenary terms? Is it so awful to try to understand the world around us? The study of intelligent, social animals like orcas not only gives us insight into how to avoid damaging the natural world and the human benefits it provides, but insight into human behavior. It’s important to keep in mind that just because one doesn’t know all the rationale for research (spelled out in grant applications) doesn’t mean it’s without merit and justification. Nor is it the case that funding agencies simply throw money at whatever sounds cool or (far worse) supports a political ideology – though many here assume otherwise.

      • Kristi, it’s not awful to try to understand the works around us, but I’d prefer you not do it using money forcibly taken from me via the tax system. That is, I think a high percentage of government-funded research is not money well spent. Find someone who is willing to give you money freely, such as a charitable foundation or rich patron who wants to learn about Orcas. Sadly, I’m forced to fund a whole lot of research I’d be very happy to do without.

      • Kristi, last time I checked “scientists” were humans. As such they are subject to the same vices that the rest of us suffer from.
        You don’t become a superior form of being just because someone allows you to put a few letters after your name.

      • “Kristi, last time I checked “scientists” were humans. As such they are subject to the same vices that the rest of us suffer from.
        You don’t become a superior form of being just because someone allows you to put a few letters after your name.”

        Everyone is human, but that doesn’t mean you can assume everyone in a profession has no integrity, ability to think for himself, dedication to the search for truth rather than an excuse for the next grant.

        Your assertions and assumptions say more about you than about them.

      • JPMiller, I’m not exactly thrilled about paying for trips to Mars or a new stadium or oil subsidies. It;s part of living in any community – no one gets what they want all the time. I’m not going to whine about it, though.

        And it’s not me taking your money. My last research job was for the state forestry department.

    • I’ve always been a ‘lumper’, not a ‘splitter.’ I can see the lure of splitting though – you get to write more papers about describing obscure differences to describe a specie, which can help along a doctorate and gain more funding from those who have an interest in controlling people and things (in the name of saving the __________ fill in the blank). Follow the money, follow the control.

  21. Kip Hansen, …… I really enjoyed reading your commentary ….. but what really “got my attention” was the following, to wit:

    Excerpted from Kip Hansen published commentary:

    There is at least one situation in which the ESA requires that biologists run a breeding program to cross-breed two separate species, Coyotes and Grey Wolves, to produce the species labeled the Red Wolf to “keep it from going extinct” — the Red Wolf is not really a species at all but a hybrid between two “species” that are probably biologically varieties of an overlaying Canis species. You see, in the past, when wolves and coyotes both roamed the lands east of the Mississippi, the coyote [Canis latrans] and the grey wolf [Canis lupus] interbred, producing a hybrid known as the red wolf [Canis rufus or Canis lupus rufus] which has not only been incorrectly named as a distinct species but declared an officially-designated Endangered Species.

    Kip, I thought that I should tell you, that in the Mohawk Valley area of upstate New York, more specifically Herkimer County, where I lived for more than 20 years (late 60’s-early 80’s), there was then, and still is, a per se wolf “hybrid” population that is “running wild” and, in my opinion, in no danger of being an Endangered Species.

    When I was there it was being called a Coydog [or cross between a Grey wolf and a domestic dog] by the NYS DNR. Sometimes referred to as a Coywolf [or cross between a Grey wolf and coyote], ….. but I never heard it being called a Red Wolf. But now days they are simply calling it “coyote”, or more specifically, Eastern coyote.

    But regardless of what they are “Politically Correct” calling it, it is still a wolf hybrid because of its size and weight.

    Now I shot and killed 3 or 4 of them when I lived up there because they “hunted in packs” and posed a danger to the White Tail deer population and to my livestock and other farm animals, as well as domestic animals (cats, small dogs, etc.) I have pictures of several Coydogs that have been shot, by me and by a friend that lives there now.

    Kip, just do a Google search for ….. “coyotes in upstate ny” …….

    Cheers, Sam C

    • Sam ==> Thanks for the coydog story. We lived in St, Johnsville for five years or so — hunted Herkimer diamonds in the creek behind our stone grist mill (it ground buckwheat in its day). Parents kept their children close to home by filling their little heads with the scary idea that if they went too far, and stayed out at dusk “the coydogs’d get them”.

  22. Racists have a new “scientific” argument on their side. Pass laws restricting interracial marriages to fight “extinction by speciation reversal”

    • Sadly, this isn’t a new argument. I’ve gotten into a few pointless online debates with idiots who believe this drivel over the years. The faux scientific claim that blondes are going extinct pops up as “news” at least once every five years or so. Snopes dug up an article from 1865 rejecting the apparently popular notion that blondes were going extinct. Sometimes they switch up which sociopolitical bogeyman is prime cause of concern, but the basic premise has been around for centuries.

  23. “— Great Danes cannot physically breed with Chihuahuas — ”

    I’d have to argue this one, I have witnessed a Great Dane bitch lay down flat and raise her tail to give a Jack-Russell a clear run at the end-zone……

  24. I think step one is demanding proof that ‘biodiversity’ is anything more than totalist language. There are ∼8.7 million eukaryotic species on earth. The idea that loosing 0.0001% represents a problem is absurd.

    • Since the beginning of time, we have been losing species.
      It’s nothing new, nor is there any evidence that the current rate is above normal.

      • MarkW
        “It’s nothing new, nor is there any evidence that the current rate is above normal.”

        Do you just make these things up? Or are you repeating something you heard or read? Do you ever question such assertions? Surely you know that many studies have concluded otherwise, so what makes your information more reliable? Really, I’d like to know.

        This study attempted to address the question very conservatively.

      • Kristi ==> That’s a Paul Ehrlich study — he has NEVER been right, on any prediction, on anything, as far as I know.

      • Kristi, as always you believe the myths that you have been taught.
        The reality is that the claimed jump in extinctions has always been assumed, it has never been documented.

      • PS, the study you reference is based on models. Assumptions regarding how many species should have gone extinct.

      • Kip, the paper by Ehrlich and others was not a prediction, it was a comparison, and he wasn’t first author. Ehrlich, by the way, made significant and lasting contributions to population biology. He’s just a little… *extreme* shall we say?

        Here’s evidence from fish:.


        There is very substantial evidence that extinctions are happening at many times the background rate. It’s no surprise – humans are incredibly effective at changing the environment, moving organisms around, hunting, etc. Why should this even be a controversy? It’s just this kind of resistance to the evidence that makes the skeptic position weak. That and the strange assumption that they know science better than scientists themselves.

        …I just happened to stumble on this.
        “Chytridiomycosis, caused by Batrachochytrium, is thought to be an
        exception10. This chytrid grows on amphibian skin and produces
        aquatic zoospores22,24. Widespread and ranging from deserts and
        lowland rainforests to cold mountain tops27, it is sometimes a nonlethal
        parasite and possibly a saprophyte19,2”

        It’s everywhere. Didn’t need scientists to spread it.

      • Kristi ==> Erhlich has been one of the world’s leading catastrophists since the 1960s — his position in the authors list is irrelevant. Nothing he ever predicted came to pass.
        Without a solid definition for species, we have no idea how many may have gone extinct in the past — absolutely none. The fossil record does not list the species and subspecies alongside the bones.
        The fish paper you offer up is “fishy” — it is based on the madcap naming of “species” in the heyday of taxonomy and includes “species” lost when the one spring or caldera they existed in dried up.
        Chytrid didn’t need herpetologist to spread it — they could have saved a great many species of amphibians had they been more careful in the early days. No pandemic needs careless spreading — but most, in today’s world, get lots of help from man cooperating in its spread.

      • Kip, I’m well aware of who Ehrlich is. He’s just on the other end of the spectrum from those who say all the world needs is modern development and all will be fine. From my perspective that’s just as wacky.

        Any definition of “species” is going to be a human construct to some extent, and that’s simply what biologists and others have to deal with. As long as they do it consistently within a study it’s usually fine. There are people who are experts at this kind of thing, you know, so let them debate the wolf issue and work it out. The DNA is not a settled issue. The fact that they can inbreed does not make them all the same species. Think about reproduction and how important that is to fitness. It’s going to be highly selected for, with not a lot of genetic variation. That means that even after separation of populations for thousands of years there may be little change in any facet of reproductive biology even while they adapt to their habitat, change diets and develope different anatomy.

        “Chytrid didn’t need herpetologist to spread it — they could have saved a great many species of amphibians had they been more careful in the early days. No pandemic needs careless spreading — but most, in today’s world, get lots of help from man cooperating in its spread.”

        It is unknown how it was spread. Some of it may have been through trade. I’ve looked and found no indications it was spread by herpetologists. You don’t know how many species of amphibians could have been saved. It’s true that humans have vastly increased the movement of organisms around the globe, but with something that travels this fast and infects so many different species it would have been very difficult to keep it isolated. There’s enough to blame on humans. Now, if the problem were around before but is now aggravated by climate change, that could be blamed on humans, since if more were done earlier it might not have gotten to this point.

      • Kristi ==> I will find you the study on herpetologists spreading Chytrid — it was quite a shocking thing, and has been allowed to fade into the brush — they’d rather not talk about it much.

        I don’t think you have grasped the problem with the ESA and the undefined (vague and using words themselves as yet undefined) terms used in it…imagine the same situation in criminal law — you have been accused of “fraud” — but the term (just for our example) , undefined in law, is allowed to mean that you did something that some others think “wasn’t very nice”…. that’s about how vague the ESA is today.

  25. When it comes to evolution, there are two most active parties in play: those who refuse to “believe” in evolution (as if it is something to believe in), and those who want to stop the evolution (as if it is something that can be stopped). I am sure evolution would love to see these morons to exterminate each other (if it would be something that could have emotions).

    P.S. Interracial marriages doom ethnic diversity? Who would have thought?

  26. Aren’t we seeing exactly this in our own genome? The “news” reports lately are rife with articles about how “ancient man” interbred with both Neanderthals and Denisovians, which would seem to indicate to me that all of these varieties qualify as “human” in every aspect that counts.

    • Se comment below. Modern humans, neanderthals and denisovans were apparently only barely capable of having viable hybrid offspring.

    • Occasional fertile hybrid offspring between normally non-interfertile species are far from unknown.

      This was probably the way hybridization between modern humans and neanderthals happened. Note these facts: there are no Neanderthal Y-chromosomes and no neanderthal mt-DNA in modern humans. So apparently male hybrids were sterile or non-viable and so were daughters of sapiens males and neanderthalensis females.

      Neanderthal genes in modern humans apparently were transmitted exclusively by daughters of neanderthalensis males and sapiens females.

      • Alternative hypothesis, there may have been sociopolitical pressures at play. Perhaps a habit of slaughtering rival males and taking their women lead to the situation you describe where only interbred daughters passed on their genetics.

      • TTY==> “What you describe is an example of a behavioral species isolating mechanism”

        What you’ve stated is an example of creating a tautological argument by assigning a nice, sciencey sounding phrase to behavior that may be counter to the initial proposition and then acting as though the redefinition erases the conflict.

        Regardless of what you call it, there is a difference between the assumption that it was genetically impossible for interbreeding to have been successful with other pairings due to infertility of offspring and the assumption that we simply do not have evidence that it was possible for interbreeding to be successful for some other reason. Attributing social behavior to genetics has never worked out well under lab conditions, nor has it been documented in the field. Behavior tends to change, sometimes dramatically, in response to external conditions.

        That’s the big flaw with inductive reasoning. All it takes is a little imagination to come up with an alternative hypothesis that still hits all the factual wickets, and it’s impossible to prove or disprove either without discovery of new evidence.

  27. A remarkable amount of ignorance is being displayed here. The Biological Species Concept is based on the fact that some populations don’t interbreed and produce viable offspring.

    N. B. that they do not interbreed does not equal that they can not interbreed.

    For example all the large falcons (subgenus Hierofalco) can interbreed and have fertile offspring as proven by falcon breeders, but they never or extremely rarely do so in the wild, they are well defined biological species. In many cases some introgression is happening continuously between closely related species, but it is not extensive enough to “blur” species delimitation (e. g. Capercailzie/Black Grouse or Red Kite/Black Kite)

    Extensive introgression or even amalgamation between such species does occasionally happen naturally (e. g. when two previously isolated population come into contact because climate or other environmental factors change). It can however also happen that the end result is instead three distinct and reproductively isolated species, the two original ones plus a third stabilized hybrid. This is very common in plants but rare in animals, but it does happen (the Italian Sparrow and the Pomarine Skua are examples).

    However this process has been greatly accelerated by human modification of habitat which removes dispersal barriers and forces species into new habitats.

    And that the Biological Species Concept really exists is most strongly supported by the fact that it is recognized by the animals themselves.

    • tty ==> Yes, 26 Species Concepts exist….maybe someday biologists will agree on the one to be used for policy setting. DNA techniques will probably become the basis for the final definition.

      • Kip, Why do think there would every be a final definition? The concept of species has been around for hundreds of years and it becomes more and more vague and undefined as time goes on. All evidence points to it become more ambiguous and undefined. Words like species, evolution, climate, race, liberal, conservative and hundreds of other words become useless in our information age, because they are continually polluted by the internet and the mass points of views that can be found.

        I don’t see this improving any time soon. We have entered the age of non-communication and “news speak”.

      • Dan ==> It depends on whether or not we are talking Science or at the dinner-table.
        Scientific concepts have to be very carefully defined so that scientists can talk to one another and mean the same thing — very specifically. Science has ways of talking about vague things that get around this when necessary.
        The whole pooint of this essay is to demonstrate the problems brought about when a Science concept — one without a strict agreed upon definition that closely represents at least reality-as-presently-understood, is used to develop Public Policy and Public Laws regulating human affairs.
        In the present, there is no single agreed-upon definition of species, or subspecies, or local population — words contained in the ESA that can be used to stop desired public infrastructure enhancements. See snail darter story.

      • Dear Kip

        DNA is not a cure-all. It gives information on how long it is since two lineages became separated, but not how different they are. The problem is that almost all mutations have no somatic effects or are selectively neutral. On the other hand changes in just a few crucial genes can completely isolate two populations (e. g. through a change in breeding season). There are many cases of very distinct taxa that are not separable on DNA by present techniques. On the other hand there are many cases where seemingly homogenous populations which have always been considered to be a single species prove to actually consist of two or more genetically quite different lineages.

      • tty ==> Oh, I agree completely. We only vaguely understand what DNA is and does and how it relates to even obvious things — like if this DNA were put into a viable undifferentiated cell, would it grow into a human or a chimpanzee. We certainly can’t know what DNA changes we have to see to know if we have one species or two or three….we haven’t any definition of species based on DNA similarity or differences.

        But in the end, it will be a DNA-based concept — what form it will take I have no idea — our state of knowledge is too primitive at this stage to formulate a definition even if we knew what we wanted it to say.

      • tty
        March 19, 2018 at 12:33 pm

        Maize and its wild ancestor teosinte are genetically identical, in terms of genes, ie protein-coding sequences.

      • Kip Hansen March 19, 2018 at 1:35 pm

        In the case of humans and chimps, we can be sure that the cell would become one or the other, based upon not only the details of DNA but our chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs, instead of the great ape standard 24, because our large #2 resulted from the fusion of two smaller normal ape chromosomes.

      • And of course the phenotypic differences between humans and chimps are largely due to control sequences in the genome, not to genes, ie protein-coding sequences. For instance, the difference in body hair isn’t thanks to hair proteins but to the control sequences, which cause our hair to grow short rather than long.

  28. I find the obsession with maintaining the purity of wild species darkly humorous. When people were concerned with maintaining the purity of human sub-populations they were correctly condemned by the bien pensants everywhere. Why is it better when they worry about sub-populations of owls?

  29. The species problem will never be resolved as long as science and education continues to be hijacked by the “progressives.”

      • Kip, you are usually so reasonable and rational, it disappoints me when I see you make baseless, huge generalizations like this. How do you know it’s “agenda uber science”? You have heard this many many times, but how do you really know?

        I have seen the way people’s images of scientists have been manipulated through innuendo, suggestion and assertion in the complete absence of data. The skeptic literature is rife with it. There are claims made, and even when proven wrong they stick. Any alleged evidence of corruption is indication that the whole field is infected. It’s fallacious reasoning.

        If you really think agenda trumps science, even discussing all this becomes pretty meaningless. If science can’t be trusted, don’t use it to support your arguments. Simply imagine what scientists believe based on one’s ideas of their politics. It seems to be the MO of many skeptics.

        “Not only does the ESA allow Endangered Species designation for “reproductively isolated” populations, which may not actually be species in the stricter sense, in that, if brought together, they would interbreed with viable offspring. The ESA goes much further and allows the designation of “subspecies” — another word without a scientific definition — AND “any distinct population segment of any species”. This virtually allows the designation of nearly any small, isolated population of any vertebrate fish or wildlife.”

        This is misleading, I think. You seem to imply that this will result in all kinds of populations inappropriately being listed. ESA policy is lengthy and complex, (see https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/index.html#listing_policy); and you don’t seem to have evidence of questionable subpopulations being listed is you didn’t even allow for the fact that “distinct population segment” has its own standards:

        “Distinct population segment (DPS)
        A subdivision of a vertebrate species that is treated as a species for purposes of listing under the Endangered Species Act. To be so recognized, a potential distinct population segment must satisfy standards specified in a FWS or NOAA Fisheries policy statement (See the February 7, 1996, Federal Register, pages 4722-4725). The standards require it to be separable from the remainder of and significant to the species to which it belongs.”

      • Kristi ==> This is an opinion, obviously. It is my opinion about much of the current hoopala over a great many “issues” in western society.
        For “agenda uber science”, read A conversation with Patrick Moore for a quicky example.
        As for ESA being inappropriately applied, see the snail darter story and the Red Wolf story (linked above and in the essay).

      • On the other hand, Kristi is young and still views scientists as a superior form of humanity that is incapable of suffering from the same vices that infect us mere mortals.

      • “As for ESA being inappropriately applied, see the snail darter story and the Red Wolf story (linked above and in the essay).”

        Kip, you are talking about one incident 40 years ago, and another that you got wrong – the ESA never suggested interbreeding coyotes and gray wolves to get red wolves! And the genetic relationship is not settled. See reply way below.

        I started reading the conversation with Patrick Moore, then came across this, “Then you have India and China, both of whom kind of play along with the politics of climate change, but are really in no way doing very much on the policy front to address this so-called problem. ”

        Either he’s ignorant or a liar, but since I’ve seen this repeated endlessly, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. China is a world leader in switching from FF to renewables, investing hundreds of billions of dollars. That doesn’t mean they aren’t opening new coal plants; I can understand why this would sometimes be necessary.

        Anyway, then I scanned. Same old tired arguments I’ve seen before. All the old groundless assertions. It’s a broken record, and that’s all the more reason to believe that systematic propaganda has played a role in denial. I often wonder whether those who spread it are conscious of what they are doing, or is it simply repeating what they’ve heard. Patrick Moore, activist, talking about his campaigns with Greenpeace. He’d be quite an asset to a group interested in spreading a message.

        “There is no proof, if there was a proof, that human CO2 emissions were the cause of warming in the climate, they would write it down on a piece of paper, so we can read it and see it, but they have no such proof. All they have is the hypothesis based on the idea that CO2 is a greenhouse gas like water vapor, only water vapor is probably a 100 times more important than CO2. So they just say this, they say CO2 is a greenhouse gas, therefore it’s the cause of climate warming. They have no proof whatsoever to back it up. ”

        This is just rubbish. It’s as if saying it enough times will make it so. There is plenty of evidence. No proof, because science is not about proof. The problem is, no amount of evidence will ever be enough if you don’t believe that the science is trustworthy. What better way to control information than to convince the public that science has been corrupted?

        Patrick Moore said the Russians were against AGW, maybe they have also had a hand in promoting denial. What a sickening thought.

        “For a major religion, like the catholic religion, to characterize the human species as basically evil, basically dirty, filthy, is something that I simply do not tolerate.”
        Another ridiculous, false characterization.

        “What you see from now is a gradual, not perfectly even, but a gradual decline in carbon dioxide from at least 5 000 parts for million”
        What??? Uh-uh.

        “Well, one of the, I think, contradictions of the environmental green movement is that they’re using all these modern techniques of internet and social media, and just modern society, they’re using the energy that has been produced from the fossil fuels every day of their lives, whether it’s to manufacture the bicycle they’re riding on or to run the television they’re looking at. They’re using all these fruits of modern civilization, while at the same time condemning modern civilization.”

        I hate statements like this. Pure propaganda meant to ridicule and dismiss. It’s ubiquitous.

        Here is my stance. I believe it is in our long-term interest to not be dependent on fossil fuels alone and to conserve the reserves we have in case of changing international political climate, as well as to make it last. I believe development of renewable energy technology is a wise investment because of the global market. I believe it prudent to lower our CO2 emissions for many reasons, BUT that doesn’t mean I’m simply anti-fossil fuel. Is that so impossible to imagine, that others don’t think in all or nothing terms? Fossil fuels are necessary.

        “Condemning modern civilization”? Who is he talking about?

        “To me, this is a profoundly dishonest situation that we have with a movement claiming to be virtuous at the same time, as being more hypocritical that one could ever imagine in practice in the way they live their lives. ”
        This is because people use fossil fuels? Even if they are trying to make a difference? By riding their bikes, taking public transport, buying into solar energy projects, using energy efficient appliances….the list goes on and on how individuals can make a difference. There is only so much people can do, though, as individuals. But still they are hypocrites if they use any fossil fuel? Does he expect those who want change to live like the Amish to show their dedication? Is rejection of modern civilization the only way to lower carbon emissions? No. Nor is it the case that greenies are against development of underdeveloped countries. Sheesh.

        Do you see what he’s doing? He’s creating an enemy. Or preaching the supposed nature of a shared enemy. It’s not some radical fringe, it’s the whole “environmental green movement.”

        Men like him can say something and people will believe it just because he said it. He is surely aware of that. I can’t help but think this is not just an explication of his views, but an effort to spread propaganda. If it were a liberal doing the same sort of thing I would consider it equally despicable. i’m sick of all the hatred, lies, assumptions, pigeon-holing and propaganda that fuels it.

        Thanks, Kip. I think your articles are very interesting, and I appreciate them. Sorry if I come off as confrontational or something; I don’t mean it like that, I’m just not always very diplomatic.

      • Kristi ==> I’m glad you’ve joined the conversation here at WUWT.
        Patrick Moore gives his opinions….which can neither be right nor wrong…they are opinions. China, however, is building coal plants like crazy.. 700 new coal plants, to be precise. That compares to the USA’s total of 557 coal plants at present.

  30. “(16) The term “species” includes any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

    Thanks Kip for pointing that out. Previously, I was under the impression the EPA was supposed to follow the accepted definition of species. Geez, no wonder the EPA has such broad reach, which needs to be limited!

    • That is the so-called “Phylogenetic species concept” which in my opinion is quite nonsensical. A very good argument against it is to point out that it implies that there is at the very least five different human species. Which is probably why EPA sneaked in “wildlife” after “vertebrate”.

    • This isn’t about the EPA, it’s about the Endangered Species Act, which is administered by multiple agencies, primarily the Fish and Wildlife Service.

      See my comment above regarding the definition of species.

      There is no one accepted definition of species. Species can’t be defined from a biological standpoint, and any definition is an approximation. “Species” is convenient abbreviation that enables people to discuss a generalization. The details are discussed if important, and where they are important. This is the case in the ESA listings. The ESA allows subpecies in the definition to enable it to cover specific groups, but that doesn’t mean that subspecies normally hold weight equal to species. As has been made obvious here, nomenclature of these taxonomic categories is not always straightforward.

      • Ms Silber, you are being deliberately thick. The ESA is used as a tool by the greens to block whatever they oppose because it might affect an endangered species. If the species is not endangered, the rationale is clearly bogus.

      • Tom Halla,

        I know the complexities of defining “species” and what that means for conservation. What you perceive as being thick is actually a much deeper understanding of the subject than you have, which is convenient when you want to write off the law as the tool of the greens.

  31. You didn’t even mention the taxonomists who can wipe out or create a slew of species with a single monograph or thesis.

  32. The basics are any member of a species is not a clone of that species, each individual is subtly different from every other member of the species. Most species are fairly specialized in adapting to a particular niche environments. However individual adaptations may be better or worse at this adaptation.
    Through speciation most types of life adapt to a new environment, whether that change is seen as regressive, or not, is immaterial as long as that life can exploit the resources of the new environment. Those that can’t will become extinct and other life will, if it can, adapt (through it’s speciation) to that new environment and flourish.

    Humans are the anomaly here in that we are not very specialized to a particular environment but are highly adaptable (and it is said can also learn).

    • tom0mason ==> “(and it is said [that humans] can also learn).” — subject to a lot of varying opinions, that.

      • Or as the great philosopher K put it in the venerable classic Men in Black, “A person is smart; people are dumb, panicky animals and you know it.”

    • IIRC, due to a relatively recent population collapse event, modern cheetahs would not be a species, as they are essentially genetic clones, variegated coats notwithstanding.

      • That applies to a very large number of species which started out with a small founder population, though cheetahs are a somewhat extreme example.

  33. How would people react if we applied these concepts to humans?

    During the 20 and 21st century era of globalization, speciation reversal created the massive hybridization extinction event. Numerous human species became extinct, victims of speciation reversal. All told, human biodiversity was reduced by 83%

    I think a lot of people would have a problem with classifying people into various species. But it is exactly what ‘they’ are doing with animals.

    • Indeed.
      Anymore than any other physical variation attempts to defines a breed or species? As Albinism in humans is a congenital disorder, are albinos a separate human genetic type? No, we are not clones of our forefathers, we are all hybrid variants.
      Humans however push at the species boundaries with our foolish ideas and experiments when breeding animals and plants. We have yet to learn the hard lesson that nature abhors our much valued ideas of a ‘pure’ species. ‘Pure’ selected species that are bred for a minimal adaptation.

    • The modern concept of racism is surprisingly recent dating back only to the late 1700s. Christoph Meiners of the Gottingen School of History coined the term “Caucasoid” as part of a theory of polygenism. Basically, they believed that different races evolved separately from each other, and thus some were more “evolved” than others. Meiners’ definition of what we now call Caucasian were based primarily on his own personal sexual preferences more than any science at all. He conceived of two basic races, the “beautiful white race” and “the ugly black race”. Those of us with freckles, curly hair, or big noses were deemed the product of unnatural “admixture”.

      Racists have fought tooth and nail to maintain the basis of this theory in the face of multitudinous counter evidence for more than two hundred years. It’s easier to convince someone that an as yet undiscovered completely unobservable form of matter is responsible for the majority of the gravity in the universe than it is to convince them that they aren’t genetically “better” than other people based on arbitrary phenotypic differences.

      • As anecdotal evidence, consider Shakespeare’s Othello. The plot driver isn’t the marriage between Othello and Desdemona. That is taken as a natural and normal condition. It is Iago’s wounded pride that propels the narrative. No one cares about the mixed race marriage.

      • Happy to be doing the Shakespearian thing and quite convinced the next generation is way superior to the ancestors.

  34. Back in the days when I was studying evolution, the definition of a species was well understood. Members of a species can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Inability to do so means you are reproductively isolated from each other and are members of distinct species. I don’t know when that changed, but the field seems to have become more confused rather than less so.

    • Robert ==> Our understanding of the true state of affairs re species has become more complete — and as with so many things, it is a lot more complicated than we thought.

      • Is “the true state of affairs” based on something substantive, or just the work product of taxonomists with not enough to do except muddy the waters?

      • Robert ==> Our understanding of the complexities of what we once thought — “when I was studying evolution, the definition of a species was well understood.”
        We understand now that it isn’t that simple — more complex, more complicated, a lot of unknowns yet.

    • That definition (Biological Species Concept) works very well with birds and fairly well for other animals. It does not work nearly as well for plants (where speciation by hybridization, polyploidy and apomixis is common) and even worse for prokaryotes.

      • So what is the result of speciation in plants by the mechanisms you mention? With respect to prokaryotes, I can see how it might break down in cases where non-sexual reproduction is common, but in the case of plants I don’t see why it should break down because of the mechanisms you mention. Why is a genetically distinct population that can produce fertile offspring with another genetically distinct population not just a subspecies of the species to which they both belong?

      • Robert Kral,
        “Why is a genetically distinct population that can produce fertile offspring with another genetically distinct population not just a subspecies of the species to which they both belong?”

        In this case the offspring would simply be the same species. There would be no reason to classify them as a subspecies, when they are simply a mix of two populations of a species. Just because populations are genetically distinct doesn’t matter.

      • Robert Kral:

        Species formation by hybridization/polyploidy results in ”ordinary” new species, but the process is almost instantaneous. A classic case is Spartina anglica a cordgrass which originated in c. 1870 in England as an allotetraploid from a hybrid of an american and a European cordgrass. It is by the way quite invasive and is spreading in northern Europe.

        Apomictic plants produce seeds without fertilization, so every single individual plant is reproductively isolated and starts a new lineage. The only changes are due to mutations. In theory this should result in a completely unstructured continuum, but in practice most lineages become extinct while others are more successful, and these successful lineage groups often become distinct enough to be recognizable as “species” of a sort, at least by specialists. In the short run apomixis is a very successful evolutionary strategy since no resources has to be devoted to producing males or male reproductive organs. Dandelions for example are almost always apomictic, and they are a very successful group of plants.

        In the long run apomixis however is not a good idea. Apomictic organisms have quite limited ability to adapt to changed conditions since there is no recombination of genes from different individuals and also there is no way to get rid of bad mutated genes except through the death of the individual, so the number of such genes can only increase in every lineage (“Muller’s Ratchet”). Ultimately all apomictic lineages therefore become extinct without offspring. There are quite a lot of apomictic plants (and a few animals too, as a matter of fact), but they are all young by evolutionary standards.

      • tty – thanks for your time and effort giving such knowledgeable, detailed answers to comments about evolution. Obviously you have a very solid background in it. It’s always good to see someone with similar interests; I don’t meet many who know much of anything about evolution.

        Plant genetics is a whole different ball game, eh? The frequency with which hybridization happens now can be seen in another light: it suggests how different the natural world once was. If there weren’t once more barriers to hybridizing, we wouldn’t recognize the distinct spp now – although there are natural polyploids, of course.

        It’s no surprise that Spartina anglica is invasive; there seems to be a relationship with that and polyploidy, or hybrids in general.

        “Polyploidy may offer some evolutionary reprieve from the lack of inter-individual variability, as high levels of allelic richness can be maintained within individuals. Japanese Knotweed is an octoploid (2n = 88), and it is noteworthy that polyploidy is common to all 18 of the ‘world’s worst weeds’ listed by Holm et al. (1977) It is worth qualifying this, however, with the comment that polyploidy
        per se is not a prerequisite to successful plant invasions, and Gray (1986) noted that
        of the 20 most successful alien plants in Britain (Crawley, 1987), nine are diploid. ”
        —-ONLY nine! More than half polypolid. Someone should make a movie about a polyploid man who has superpowers, or a polyploid Daisy who roams the country destroying crops and head-butting people into the next county.

        Weeds are my Thang. Do you know Japanese knotweed? People in Britain have problems getting mortgages or home insurance if it’s on their property. It’s making its way across the U.S. It’s gynodioecious, so has hermaphrodite plants and male plants, but the males are sterile. A paper did DNA testing and found that all the plants in Britain, as well as samples in central Europe and the US, were one big genetic clone. The plant can grow from pieces of root just a couple inches long.

        How’s that for a subspecies? It’s made of one individual genetic individual! It was introduced from the Far East as an ornamental – no surprise there..

        There’s also giant knotweed, which is less invasive, but it’s fertile. The two can hybridize, with fertile offspring.

        Then there’s the problem with the native American bittersweet hybridizing with the invasive oriental bittersweet. Am. bit. is a source of bird food and a natural component of the system. Or. bit. is a vine that grows into the canopy, shading out and pulling down trees. American bittersweet is under threat of local extinction through hybridization.

        Ok, so we lose one vine – so what? Well, when does it stop? Is there a limit to the number of species we are willing to lose? We are in the middle of a mass extinction at the same time Earth’s ecosystems may need diversity to weather climate change. That doesn’t mean trying to keep everything, it means choosing battles, weighing importance vs. resources needed for success..

        Urbanization has meant a loss of consciousness of how dependent we are on the living organisms around us.

        Seems to me definitions of “species” including capacity for interbreeding are often misinterpreted to mean the individuals in the group can’t breed with other species. It’s not a logical inference.

      • tty March 20, 2018 at 2:45 am :
        “A classic case is Spartina anglica a cordgrass which originated in c. 1870 in England as an allotetraploid from a hybrid of an american and a European cordgrass.”

        If both grasses have traits identifying them as cordgrass, and they produce viable offspring when in proximity, they are simply varieties of same species, biologically. Isolation preventing interbreeding does not of itself make a distinct species, except in the minds of men.


  35. Whether the concept of specie is solid or fuzzy, well grounded or arbitrary, it is STILL just a label.
    How can such a thing be “endangered”? Makes no sense. You can even invent it millions of years after the death of the last of its “kind”, as the famous T Rex.
    T Rex will live for as long as some teacher teach about it. So will red wolf and dodo specie, whether some live animal fit their definition or not.
    On the other hand, each and every instance of red wolf will eventually die just like dodos did. And, that’s life. You want to save it? Won’t happen.
    So, what’s an endangered specie protection? Some collective right to have offspring imbued to some living beings collection, and some collective duty for humans to have it happen… Sounds ridiculous…

    • paqyfelyc ==> Your argument is one of the many in the mainstream Species Problem controversy.

    • “So, what’s an endangered specie protection?”

      A tool to control others’ stuff, others’ use of stuff, and the behavior of others (when around the controllers’ stuff).

  36. you might at least learn to spell “species”. “Specie” is money in the form of coin as opposed to notes.

    And, no, it is not just a label. As anyone with some actual experience of nature knows.

  37. Whatever happened to Mendel’s Law?
    A cross of the same “kind” can produce an individual with differences in appearance and other characteristics yet it is still the same “kind”.

    PS I can’t find the reference but I remember reading about a newt (maybe a salamander?) in California.
    There is a southern population that can breed with the central population and a northern population that can breed with the central population but the southern population cannot breed with the northern population.
    I don’t remember the specifics as to why they can’t but there was more involved than the lack of access to each other due to the absence of Governor Moonbeams high speed train to nowhere. 8-)

    • You are thinking of the Ensatina eschscholtzii complex of plethodontid salamanders. This is a classic example of a so called “ring species” where adjoining populations are interfertile but more distant ones aren’t. This was once thought to be a common phenomenon, but more recent research has found that it is actually rather rare.

  38. Good post and discussion, been through a lot of it.
    Paper 1. Ah yes, eutrophication demon, whitefish is a cold water fish, hmm, cold water holds more oxygen, lets see, also carbon dioxide. Paper behind a pay wall so cannot see if they know nitrogen is an essential element needed in large quantities. “We argue that extinction by speciation reversal may be more widespread than currently appreciated.” Isn’t everything?

    In the late 19th century cold water fishes were stocked all over the world, even in the Mississippi River. They thought they knew better. Now they know they know better.

    Paper 2. They know about stocking. “A considerable fraction of the world’s biodiversity is of recent evolutionary origin and has evolved as a by-product of, and is maintained by, divergent adaptation in heterogeneous environments.” They don’t seem to know about homogeneous environmental (sympatric) speciation. Another pay wall.

    Paper 3. They know about this– “These data suggest that the Common Raven genome was formed by secondary lineage fusion and most likely represents a case of ancient speciation reversal that occurred without anthropogenic causes.” No pay wall but don’t know much about critters that fly very far and have read my limit of papers this week.

    Tentative conclusion. A colleague of mine working in aquaculture got in trouble at a meeting by suggesting that fish taxonomists just wanted to keep species static. Like climate taxonomists? It is called Nativism and there is a literature. At least with reversals we can use negative numbers in models. As to Whooping Cranes I mentioned above, I recall certainty that they were doomed because of lack of genetic diversity. Now we know we know better.

    • HD ==> The first paper is at doi:10.1038/nature10824 (if you know how to get a paper with a doi – SciHub and all that). The eutrophication concern is that it affects deep bottom breeders/nesters in Swiss lakes…but not their shallower breeders, and may have caused the deep breeders to shift up and co-mingle with the shallower breeders (that is vastly over-simplified….:-)

  39. Good Lord this topic gives me a headache.
    The fascist eco-freak has been using species identification to wreak havoc on our civilization. For example from wiki-crap: “The Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni), also known as the Islands wolf, is a subspecies of the gray wolf, Canis lupus. The coastal wolves of southeast Alaska inhabit the area that includes the Alexander Archipelago.” There is no such animal. Some difference were noted a few years ago, quick genetic study by a local vet says, a cross breed with dogs. Thankfully another study showed some recent genetic similarity to mainland wolves. With a new species would come PROTECTION. We would have to stop logging and deer hunting to protect the habitat. God how this whole thing makes me ill.

    • Wolves are a difficult case. They are very variable, and as you note, often interbreed with dogs (which are wolves after all). Recently they even found that the north-african subspecies of the golden jackal is actually a small non-pack forming wolf subspecies (incidentally similar to the coyote in some respects).

  40. Epilogue:

    Terrific discussion along a lot of interesting lines of thought.

    Thanks to all who participated here.

    Special thanks to Dr. Susan Crockford, Polar Bear Expert, for stopping by to give us some more information on Polar Bear Hybrids

    The Endangered Species Act will continue to be used as a bludgeon to stop societal infrastructure advance as long as the Species Problem remains unresolved by science — until there is a real workable defintion that reflects biological reality — enabling mankind to protect truly endangered animal classes and not just local variants.

    Thanks for reading.

  41. The more refined our tools (genetics, DNA) the more hysterical we get. To me, the ideal is you preserve the habitat if possible and practical, and let the animals do their thing. Stop agonizing over the fact the issues on the ground don’t lend themselves to neat pigeon- holing or shoe-[horning.] Being too clever by half seems to result in ridiculous interventions. Had we been around with these nanotools when the grizzly was morphing into polar bears, we probably would have intervened and prevented this.

    We humans have magnified our senses and our tools to where we are capable of great harm or great good but often lack the understanding as to which is which. When the 1960s-70s permissiveness relaxed taboos on nakedness, movies were cranked out with gratuitous sex scenes to the exclusion of having a good story. When computer graphics brought us the great stuff of Jurassic Park, it soon degenerated into waves of Armageddon movies all with the same weak plot and massive destruction. Car chases after Steve McQueen’s in Bullitt were upstaged by phantasmagoric computer graphic colossal pile-ups. I read an alarmist article on research that showed bottled water (essentially another product of hysterics) stored for more than a couple of months was found to have 3 parts per trillion antimony (used in catalysts to make PET plastics). Antimony(V) by the spoonful is administered for certain parasites


    And 3 PPT? Our sun is 15 trillion centimetres away from earth. 3 PPT is equivalent to 45cm or 18 inches of that distance.

  42. Oh great, here we go again. First our betters wanted to control who gets to be born or not, Sanger and Galton and their eugenics jag. Then those that know everything decided that they needed to control the planet’s climate. And now they want to control evolution too? I guess there is no limit to arrogance, self-importance, egotism and pomposity after all.

  43. This may be a drastic oversimplification, but it seems to me that Speciation Reversal is an evolutionary process, so the complaint is that “evolution is happening!”

    Of course, there would be a similar complaint if new species were replacing existing ones. Anything but stasis is bad.

    • TonyG ==> “the complaint is that “evolution is happening!”” — yes, precisely right!

  44. Thank you, tty, for providing much good explanation and evidence.

    (Sorry if I repeat others – long thread!)

    Although this article is more open-ended and balanced than many, there’s still a gap between it and reality. The most glaring error is the idea that the ESA demanded crossing grey wolves with coyotes to get red wolves. (Where did this come from??? It’s nuts!) From a 2017 ESA document:
    “In 1975, it became apparent that the only way to save the red wolf from extinction was to capture as many wild animals as possible and place them in a secured captive-breeding program. This decision was based on the critically low numbers of animals left in the wild, poor physical condition of those animals due to disease and internal and external parasites, the threat posed by an expanding coyote (Canis latrans) population, and consequent inbreeding problems. ”

    Breeding with coyotes is seen as a problem, not a goal!

    The genetic relationships among domestic dogs, coyotes and the various species/varieties of wolves is still not settled. A more recent publication about wolf DNA suggests:
    “These analyses indicated that it was not coyote genetic material which led to the close genetic affinity between red wolves and eastern Canadian wolves. …The data are not consistent with the hypothesis that the eastern Canadian wolf is a subspecies of gray wolf as it is presently designated. We suggest that both the red wolf and the eastern Canadian wolf evolved in North America sharing a common lineage with the coyote until 150 000 – 300 000 years ago. We propose that it retain its original species designation, Canis lycaon ”


    From Kip’s article:
    “The ESA goes much further and allows the designation of “subspecies” — another word without a scientific definition — AND “any distinct population segment of any species”. This virtually allows the designation of nearly any small, isolated population of any vertebrate fish or wildlife.

    For example, such a designation could be made for a particular lizard population isolated on one of the Channel Islands of California even though the species is an extremely common lizard found up and down the coast of California.”

    As I stated in another comment, this disregards the ESA definition of “distinct population segment” as well as ESA priorities, and suggests that the ESA actually might treat populations of a common species as list-worthy just because they are distinct, which is BS. Then there is the assertion that “conservation efforts combat the forces of evolution itself.” This doesn’t recognize that humans have already manipulated evolution through hunting and habitat change, and that’s the problem. The ESA is trying to rectify human influence on evolution, creating the conditions that will allow natural evolution to proceed.

    The actual, practical consequences of the ESA definition of species have not been addressed. One indication is the way it’s treated relative to other concerns:
    “In our priority system, the degree or magnitude of threat is the highest criterion, followed by the immediacy of the threat and the taxonomic distinctiveness of the species (monotypic genus, then
    species, then subspecies, variety, or vertebrate population). The ESA gives no preference to popular species or so-called “higher life forms.””

    It’s very important to distinguish those hybrids that have occurred naturally vs. those manipulated intentionally by humans. Part of one common definition of species is that they don’t normally hybridize >>>in the wild.<<<< (Even if there is a little bit if hybridizing, if it's unusual enough it doesn't detract from "species" status. For instance, grizzlies and polar bears are still clearly separate species even if there was a case or two of interbreeding.) This makes the distinction among species a little easier..

    The fact that so many ecosystems have been modified by humans means that we have influenced evolution, both creating and tearing down barriers to hybridization.. This may happen through habitat loss, moving species around accidentally or intentionally, or enabling population to grow and spread outside their historical habitat. A combination of these human factor likely led to hybridization between red wolves and coyotes, and it is certain that humans contributed to the demise of red wolves in the wild.

    Speciation is a process that happens over the course of generations, and the rate can be highly variable depending on many factor. Whether populations can interbreed is not always a good criterion for species separation. Think of the difference between domestic dogs and gray wolves. One is "man's best friend," one is a top predator capable of killing livestock and humans that can never (or very rarely) be tamed. They can still interbreed. Does that mean they are interchangeable, one is as good as the other? No – they fill completely different roles.

    I've don't remember ever studying reverse speciation per se, but it doesn't strike me as odd. Introgression is just one factor in evolution among many.

    It seems to me that this article makes some claims that don't really hold water. It is assertions like these that make people think the ESA is ridiculous, illogical and unquestionably a huge waste of money. I understand this view, but it's simplistic. People are very quick to judge things they don't completely (or even vaguely) understand. This is not skepticism, it is a sign of a closed mind.

    We all know of things we pay for through our taxes that we don't support or don't directly benefit from. The childless among us pay for the schooling of those who have children. We pay for subsidies to corporations we don't support, sporting venues we never enter, infrastructure we never use. This is all part of living in a very large community we call a nation. There are sacrifices and benefits, and we all have to accept that no one gets all they want and no one deserves more than any other to get what they want from a government that is supposed to represent everyone.

    There is intrinsic value in biodiversity, the loss of which can lead to economic and human health problems that laymen may not understand, much less foresee. It's very easy to decide one's position when one has little understanding of the topic.

    Personally, I don't know if the red wolf is worth spending the resources to save. I simply don't know enough about the circumstances or the role of the red wolf in the ecosystem.

    True skepticism recognizes one's own limitations, and scrutinizes one's own beliefs. True skepticism doesn't play favorites. True skepticism of any value is curious – it searches for the truth even if it may never come to decision about it. It is the search that is enlightening. Once one believes one has found the truth, the search ends and the mind closes to alternatives.

    The internet has opened the door to more information that anyone can absorb at the same time it has contributed to a kind of tribalism that leads to the death of intellectual pursuit.


    • Kristi ==> You apparently didn’t read the background data on the Red Wolf — see my essay on it and the NY Times article.

      • I’m afraid you don’t understand the whole situation. The genetics of the wolves are still not clear – even vanHoldt admitted that. The sample size was small, IIRC. There has been new DNA evidence since that paper. The fact that there has been hybridization does not mean they aren’t different species.

        It is not possible to have one meaning of species that works in all situations. There is no scientific basis for any set meaning. Genetics won’t work either.

        At any rate, you say,
        “There is at least one situation in which the ESA requires that biologists run a breeding program to cross-breed two separate species, Coyotes and Grey Wolves, to produce the species labeled the Red Wolf ”

        That is just completely wrong.

        “The Red Wolf breeding program breeds “wolves” that have everything from nearly pure Grey Wolf genes to pure coyote genes.”
        Even your essay doesn’t support this. Wolves used for breeding were chosen for their wolf-like features. The idea is to get the coyote out.

        At some point the two were separate, or there never would have been divergence. Humans changed that. The ESA wants to reverse the changes. Whether it’s worth the resources, I don’t know – that is not something we know enough to decide. Large ecosystem imbalances can result following the removal of the top predator, sometimes resulting in economic losses. For instance, deer populations might get too high and hamper forest regrowth. See? It’s not always a simple question of “just another species.”

        Thank you for the tip regarding posting.

      • Kristi ==> The Red Wolf breeding program is doomed, and I think you already see why — you seem to have a good grounding in the genetics of evolution. They are trying to recreate and maintain a interspecific hybrid through introgression. The Red Wolves will not self-maintain themselves as a species as they require natural backcrossing — read up on why the Feds and the States disagree about the program. Heck, write an essay on it, but only if your will really dig in and get to the bottom of the problems of maintaining the Red Wolf, a hybrid, as a “species”.

    • Kristi ==> You are coming along nicely here. Try to comment to each comment separately, rather than in these long rambles addressing several other people and ideas. You’ll have better luck communicating that way.

      The Red Wolf breeding program breeds “wolves” that have everything from nearly pure Grey Wolf genes to pure coyote genes. They know full well that the red wolf is a hybrid and not a species in its own right, yet they keep banging away at it.
      The units doing the breeding do not like to look at it that way, but Zimmer reports on the conflict between agencies over the issue.

      The Red Wolf breeding program is no different than a breeding program for a champion Cockapoo. (a dog resulting from a cross between a cocker spaniel and a miniature poodle)

  45. The “problems” of speciation and speciation reversal strike me as much ado about nothing. It is nature’s method of continuing life. Nature doesn’t care, so why should we?

    • Chimp
      For a trait, yes it happens all the time.
      Birds become flightless, land vertebrates return to the sea, etc.
      However Dollo’s law relates to the whole organism – all its traits.
      Richard Dawkins expressed it well when he says that the probability of a whole organism returning to a former ancestral state in its entirety, is negligible.
      The phenotypic phase space of an organism with thousands of genes and traits is practically infinite, so the chance of revisiting a point on a past trajectory is practically zero.
      I suspect researchers here are confusing a ring species (such as herring gull – black backed gull) or a species continuum, with reverse evolution. The state “returned to” was always there, it never disappeared.

      • My favorite example of reverse evolution is mollusks in African lakes. The layers show evolution and reevolution of traits depending upon wet and dry intervals. Also the beaks of Galapagos finches.

        But Dollo’s “Law” is simply a trivial artifact of genetics. If enough generations have intervened, then, yes, other stochastic or directional changes will have made it highly improbable for a population to show exactly the same allele frequencies as before.

  46. The first rule of logic is that “the definition cannot change.” The second rule of proganda is “those that define the terms win the argument.”

    • Trevor ==> We don’t talk about “miscegenation” anymore…..apparently, mankind may have finally recognized that humans are all the same species.

      • Of course. But my point is, if you apply the definition of “species” used in the ESA to human races, one could make the case that, at least a couple thousand years ago, there were multiple SPECIES of humans. But that’s considered racist, so let’s just say there are “distinct population segments” of the human species. Segments that are arguably no less different from each other than the California Raven was from the Holarctic Raven, or the Gray Wolf from the Red Wolf.

        The authors of these three papers lament the loss of species (or “distinct population segments”) due to “speciation reversal”, which is simply the interbreeding of two “distinct population segments” of the same species (biological definition), which, for purposes of the ESA are “different” species.

        My point is, if you apply the same logic to the “distinct population segments” of the human species that existed a couple thousand years ago, when the races were still largely geographically isolated and rarely interbred, these authors would appear to come down squarely on the WRONG side of the “issue” of racial mixing. They would appear to be advocating, as did the Nazis and the KKK, for keeping the races separate and pure. Humanity now almost unanimously rejects that idea, and shuns the few extremists who embrace it. So why do we accept the same logic when it is applied to other species?

        You’re right, humans are all the same species. In the same way that the “distinct population segments” of other species are all the same species.

  47. What is it that makes some people believe that nature is an idiot that cannot be trusted to do what it has done so successfully for billions of years without their personal supervision? Perhaps they ought to learn the definition of hubris.

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