How Is Species Defined and Why Does It Matter? The Politics of Conservation

This post focuses on the definition of species and its implications beyond science content knowledge—specifically, how the definition is related to species conservation and protection.

For example, the brown bear of the Iberian Peninsula is a different species compared with other European brown bears because it is geographically isolated, right? According to a press release, New Study Changes Conditions for Spanish Brown Bears, published by AAAS’s EurekAlert! there are just two small populations of this bear and they are threatened. One idea to help bolster their population size is to introduce brown bears from other European populations. However, this may cause hybridization and eventual loss of the Iberian Peninsula brown bear species. Further, what makes conservation biologists think the two different bears will interbreed successfully?

According to the Life Science content standard of the National Science Education Standards, middle school students should be learning concepts associated with structure and function in living systems; reproduction and heredity; regulation and behavior; populations and ecosystems; diversity and adaptations of organisms. All of these areas of study are related to the concept of species. That is, discussions in any of these areas will necessarily be founded on an understanding of the term “species.”

Can we take for granted that middle school students have developed an accurate concept of species on their own, through personal experience? Because they can distinguish cat from dog, a rose from a maple tree, and a human from an ant, is it safe to assume they have a good grasp of the concept? Not if we wish to facilitate and broaden students’ conceptual understandings to progressively more sophisticated levels.

Students understand that cats and dogs, roses and maple trees, and humans and ants do not interbreed. Thus, they have an understanding of the biological definition of species. But things can get complicated and this definition does not always fit. Another perspective assumes reproductive isolation defines species. That is, if two populations are physically or temporally isolated preventing interbreeding, then they are considered separate species. That works well conceptually for most middle school students’ experience, but what about when individuals from one geographically isolated population are introduced to another, either intentionally or unintentionally, and they successfully interbreed?

When discussions around Mendelian genetics occur, the concept of hybrid is introduced. Plants do this all the time. Is the hybrid a new species? They often can and do interbreed. Are the offspring a new species? Most would hesitate to say yes. Then do we revise our definition of species? Those reproductively isolated populations really are the same species after all?

Contrary to what most people believe, the concept of species seems to be a moving target in terms of pinning a definition on it. As such, it is open to criticism from people who believe science is supposed to be definitive. This presents an opportunity for teachers to reinforce the nature of science, and life science particularly. Living systems, from a single cell to a biome, are dynamic and not entirely definitively understood. (If they were, conservation would probably not be an issue!)

Assuming a fixed definition of species may be unreasonable. One’s definition of species is contextual, dependent upon the current issue under consideration. It is important that discussants have a common definition of species in these instances. Why? Because the focus of and outcomes of species-related discussions can determine political policy, such as what gets listed as a threatened or endangered species and receives federal funding for protection from habitat destruction or hunting.

DNA sequencing allows for almost unequivocal determination of whether individuals from two different populations are the same species, and consequently subject to the same political treatment. In the case of the Spanish brown bears, DNA sequencing suggests they are not a distinct species from other European brown bears. That means introducing bears from other populations will not supplant the Iberian Peninsula brown bears. The proposed conservation strategy is a viable one. Scientists are confident that the introduced bears will successfully interbreed with the Spanish brown bears due to the genetic similarity. This constitutes a prediction, and its accuracy will be determined only after bears are introduced into the area.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

Consider the American Bald Eagle. It is cited as a success story of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It has recovered from its endangered status and was delisted in 2007. This means the bird is no longer protected under federal law in terms of some kinds of hunting and habitat protection. States are free to make their own regulations regarding hunting and protection of the species.

More recently, the Northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolf was delisted. The Western Great Lakes grey wolf population was also delisted. States that are host to these two populations have the power to regulate hunting and management of the animals. However, any wolves on National Park Service land or outside the two areas mentioned above, are under federal government protection.

How is species defined? Ask students if dogs and wolves are separate species. How do they know? Accept all reasonable responses. Are lions and tigers? Are saber toothed cats and Bengal tigers? Lead students to define species in terms of (a) macroscopic anatomy, (b) geographic isolation (lions and tigers), and (c) temporal isolation (extinct and extant cats). This discussion should highlight the difficulty in pinpointing a definition. None is incorrect, yet none is fully sufficient. This is acceptable in classroom discussions, but when conservation groups discuss species, they have to be specific. For example, in delisting the Rocky Mountain gray wolf, the documents specify the geographic region that defines the population. Individual animals falling outside the defined geographic range are not delisted and remain protected by the ESA.

Can students imagine that features other than those immediately visible could be considered in determining who is different and who is the same species? For example, in Batesian mimicry two species are physically similar, but one is poisonous to predators while the other is not. Lead students to understand that there are microscopic or chemical means of determining similarity and differences. Conversely, two populations can appear to be quite different but are chemically quite similar. (This may explain the original assumption that the Spanish brown bear was a separate species from other European brown bears.) The morphological difference is attributed to environmental influences, not genetic differences, and so it is predicted the two populations could interbreed successfully. That’s often good news for conservation management.

What do students think the Endangered Species Act is? Why is it needed? Allow them to brainstorm. Then show them pages from to either confirm their list or amend it. Can they name any organisms on the list now? Call attention to species other than mammals, including plants. How do students suppose an organism gets listed/delisted? Have students investigate this question at Facilitate student discovery that the process is not neat and easy necessarily. Rather it can be emotional and partisan. Why?

Here are some additional resources from the Middle School Portal 2 related to conservation and wildlife management: Natural Resources, the Environment, and Ecosystems; and DDT Quest.

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This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published March 26, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.