How to Fail at Species Delimitation

Mol Ecol. 2013 Sep;22(17):4369-83. doi: 10.1111/mec.12413. Epub 2013 Jul 16.


Species delimitation is the act of identifying species-level biological diversity. In recent years, the field has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of methods available for delimiting species. However, most recent investigations only utilize a handful (i.e. 2-3) of the available methods, often for unstated reasons. Because the parameter space that is potentially relevant to species delimitation far exceeds the parameterization of any existing method, a given method necessarily makes a number of simplifying assumptions, any one of which could be violated in a particular system. We suggest that researchers should apply a wide range of species delimitation analyses to their data and place their trust in delimitations that are congruent across methods. Incongruence across the results from different methods is evidence of either a difference in the power to detect cryptic lineages across one or more of the approaches used to delimit species and could indicate that assumptions of one or more of the methods have been violated. In either case, the inferences drawn from species delimitation studies should be conservative, for in most contexts it is better to fail to delimit species than it is to falsely delimit entities that do not represent actual evolutionary lineages.

Keywords: coalescent; phylogeography; species delimitation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity
  • Classification / methods*
  • Genetic Speciation*
  • Genetics, Population
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Phylogeny