Wolves illustrate why species classification befuddles. Canis lycaon was a wolf species that roamed the woods of Ontario in the 18th century. Biologists reclassified the animals as C. lupus in the early 1900s before renaming them C. lycaon during the past few years. Some wolf experts now consider them a mix of several species, including coyotes (C. latrans) and gray wolves. Image: JUSTINE COOPER; CANIS INSETS: W. PERRY CONWAY Corbis (left); ALGONQUIN PARK MUSEUM (center); RICHARD HAMILTON SMITH Corbis (right)
- Formal taxonomic systems first identified species based on visual traits such as fins or fur. Later, the species concept changed, specifying that two organisms should be capable of breeding.
- Today biological diversity can be ascertained by sampling DNA and tracking how a species descended from a common ancestor.
- The debate over species definition is far from over and is more than a mere academic spat. Proper classification is essential for designating the endangered list.
If you visit Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, you may hear the high, lonesome howls of wolves. You may even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a distant pack racing through the forests. But when you show off your blurry pictures back home, what species should you boast that you saw? Depending on the scientist you ask, you may get a different answer. Some may even offer you a few different answers all at once.
In the 18th century European naturalists dubbed the wolves of Canada and the eastern U.S. Canis lycaon, because they seemed distinct from Canis lupus, the gray wolf of Europe and Asia. By the early 1900s North American naturalists had decided that they were actually gray wolves as well. But in the past few years Canadian researchers who have analyzed wolf DNA have come full circle. They argue that gray wolves only live in western North America. The wolves of Algonquin Provincial Park belong to a separate species, which they want to call C. lycaon once more.
This article was originally published with the title What Is a Species?.