Are subspecies useful in evolutionary and conservation biology?

A B Phillimore, I P F Owens, Ally Phillimore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The taxonomic rank of subspecies remains highly contentious, largely because traditional subspecies boundaries have sometimes been contradicted by molecular phylogenetic data. The most complete meta-analysis to date, for instance, found that only 3% of traditional avian subspecies represented distinct phylogenetic lineages. However, the global generality of this phenomenon remains unclear due to this previous study's narrow geographic focus on continental Nearctic and Palearctic subspecies. Here, we present a new global analysis of avian subspecies and show that 36% of avian subspecies are, in fact, phylogenetically distinct. Among biogeographic realms we find significant differences in the proportion of subspecies that are phylogenetically distinct, with Nearctic/Palearctic subspecies showing significantly reduced levels of differentiation. Additionally, there are differences between island and continental subspecies, with continental subspecies significantly less likely to be genetically distinct. These results indicate that the overall level of congruence between taxonomic subspecies and molecular phylogenetic data is greater than previously thought. We suggest that the widespread impression that avian subspecies are not real arises from a predominance of studies focusing on continental subspecies in North America and Eurasia, regions which show unusually low levels of genetic differentiation. The broader picture is that avian subspecies often provide an effective short-cut for estimating patterns of intraspecific genetic diversity, thereby providing a useful tool for the study of evolutionary divergence and conservation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1049-1053
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences
Issue number1590
Publication statusPublished - 7 May 2006

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • subspecies
  • birds
  • phylogenetics
  • monophyly
  • islands


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