Monday, June 30, 2014

Is a Species Not Endangered if It’s Not a Species?

Small bird, bane of developers
Is the California gnatcatcher a species? Or even a sub-species? An article in the LA. Times, says that according to two scientists, Robert Zink, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, and George Barrowclough, who is associate curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, the California gnatcatcher is just a black-tailed gnatcather. The importance here is that while the California gnatcatcher is described as threatened in Southern California (its range extends into Baja California), the black-tailed gnatcatcher has a much wider range.

In part, this is a war between the “lumpers” and the “splitters.” Wikipedia notes that “was recently split from the similar Black-tailed Gnatcatcher of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts,” and it’s clear that Zink and Barrowclough do not think the split was warranted. Zink’s classification of the bird is based on genetic studies, and he characterize the earlier studies as
based on qualitative judgments and early 1900s technology — basically the equivalent of calipers and pencils.
Then there’s the developers. The status of the California gnatcatcher has stymied some attempts of development along the Southern California coast, as it would displace the coastal sage scrub where the bird lives. Obviously, the developers would like to see that protection ended, and they funded the research. Zink claims that it didn’t matter, saying of the California building industry that,
“Yes, they have a dog in this fight, but the university would not accept funding if the DNA study got money from sources they consider tainted,” he added. “They did not influence the research or writing of this study.”
Or maybe they just knew where to shop around.
Mike Patten, a geneticist at the University of Oklahoma, argued that Zink is "philosophically opposed to the very nation of ‘subspecies’ and therefore should be recused from cases such as this one.
Developers have now petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the protections granted to the bird in 1993

Update: Meant to include the black-tailed gnatcatcher for the sake of comparison.

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