Species detectives track unseen evolution

July 19, 2007

New species are evading detection using a foolproof disguise – their own unchanged appearance. Research published in the online open access journal, BMC Evolutionary Biology, suggests that the phenomenon of different animal species not being visually distinct despite other significant genetic differences is widespread in the animal kingdom.

DNA profiles and distinct mating groups are the only way to spot an evolutionary splinter group from their look-alike cousins, introducing uncertainty to biodiversity estimates globally.

Markus Pfenninger and Klaus Schwenk searched the Zoological Record database (1978-2006) to pinpoint reports of hidden (cryptic) species both biogeographically and taxonomically, and found 2207 examples. Pfenninger and Schwenk, who are from Germany based at J.W. Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt found evidence for cryptic species evenly spread among all major branches of the animal kingdom. They also found that cryptic species were just as likely to be found in all biogeographical regions.

The findings go against received wisdom that the insect or reptile branches of the animal kingdom are more likely to harbour cryptic species, and that these are more likely to be found in the tropics than in temperate regions. Zoologists should therefore consider factoring in a degree of cryptic diversity as a random error in all biodiversity assessments.

A cryptic species complex is a group of species that is reproductively isolated from each other - but lacking conspicuous differences in outward appearance. Researchers using techniques such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and DNA sequencing have increasingly discovered - often unexpectedly - that similar-looking animals within a presumed species are in fact genetically divergent. As well as highlighting hidden biodiversity among creatures zoologists have already catalogued, the findings have implications for conservation efforts. Another possibility is that pathogens, parasites and invasive species disguised as their relatives may yet remain undetected, representing a potential human health threat.

Source: BioMed Central

Explore further: DNA suggests that the diversity of European butterflies could be seriously underestimated

Related Stories

Saving the slow loris

July 14, 2015

In the forest canopies of Vietnam lives a cryptic creature called the slow loris. It's steady, solitary and downright adorable, with tiny, fuzzy round ears and the impossibly large eyes common to nocturnal animals.

Why we still collect butterflies

June 11, 2015

Who doesn't love butterflies? While most people won't think twice about destroying a wasp nest on the side of the house, spraying a swarm of ants in the driveway, or zapping pesky flies at an outdoor barbecue, few would intentionally ...

Recommended for you

Researchers design first artificial ribosome

July 29, 2015

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University have engineered a tethered ribosome that works nearly as well as the authentic cellular component, or organelle, that produces all the proteins ...

Meet the high-performance single-molecule diode

July 29, 2015

A team of researchers from Berkeley Lab and Columbia University has passed a major milestone in molecular electronics with the creation of the world's highest-performance single-molecule diode. Working at Berkeley Lab's Molecular ...

Researchers build bacteria's photosynthetic engine

July 29, 2015

Nearly all life on Earth depends on photosynthesis, the conversion of light energy into chemical energy. Oxygen-producing plants and cyanobacteria perfected this process 2.7 billion years ago. But the first photosynthetic ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.