State of affairs

Various research lines are in full development: an update.

One of our research lines consists of interviewing taxonomists, to investigate how theoretical entities like species concepts and taxonomic methods operate in practice. Arguably, something as a species concept is a living thing, as each taxonomist interprets and applies species concepts in his or her own manner. The questionnaire for the interviews has been established and has been duly tested on some guinea pigs within the research group. In particular, some interesting discussions have developed on the interaction between theoretical positions of taxonomists and their taxonomic practice. Once ethical clearance is received, the interviewing will start ‘for real’.

Next to the interviews, the project studies taxonomic disagreement in birds: which factors lie at the base of, or increase the probability of, taxonomic disagreement? Possible factors are manifold: ranging from biological factors as geography, habitat type, range overlap with closely related species, to man-related factors as economic value, charisma, visibility, and others. The challenge here is to distinguish clearly between biological causes of taxonomic problems (e.g. hybridisation), or human and epistemic causes (e.g. disagreement on speciation). For instance, if the probability of taxonomic disagreement for a group is (partly) determined by geography, this might be due to biogeographical elements leading to complex evolutionary constellations (e.g. island biogeography) or simply due to geography having an impact on the distribution of taxonomic attention.

Third, a case study is being set up focussing on taxonomic chaos in the characteristic orchid genus Ophrys. These bee-mimicking orchids, luring male bees to copulate with them for pollination, are a beloved genus of botanists across Europe, and well-studied since more than a century. However, despite all available knowledge, taxonomic chaos lingers on: some classifications recognise up to 350 species as the result of extreme splitting, while others recognise only 10 species. The objective here is to investigate where the causes of disagreement exactly lie: with species concepts, with the operationalisation thereof, with external considerations, or simply because the genus is evolutionary recent, and speciation incomplete. Elucidating the true causes of disagreement seems key towards defining possible solutions, as the best solution might vary in function of the causes.

In this case study, a reflection will also be made on the extent to which the ongoing disagreement is a problem. On one hand, some argue that this disagreement is a good thing, express hope that lumpers and splitters will remain to make their case, while on the other hand, some speculate that ongoing uncertainty on taxonomic ranks is the reason most Ophrys species are classified as ‘Data Deficient’ on the Red List of the IUCN, putting their conservation at risk.

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