Species definitions shape policy

Authors: Euan G Ritchie, Bradley P Smith, Lily M van Eeden, and Dale G Nimmo

Published in: Science, volume 361, issue 6,409 (September 2018)

The names we assign to organisms, and why, have important ramifications for our understanding of Earth’s diversity and, more practically, how it is managed. For example, wolves, coyotes, domestic dogs, and other canids are often considered distinct (1), but their members can, and frequently do, interbreed (2). Differing concepts of species—which might take into account morphology, ecology, behaviour, genetics, or evolutionary history (3) —could describe canids as very few or many species, depending on which concepts are used and how strictly they are applied. Which definition scientists adopt can have political and ecological consequences.

The dingo (Canis dingo) has traditionally been considered native in Australia, given evidence of its presence before the year 1400 (4) and indications that it has lived in Australia for at least 5,000 years (5). This designation meant that Western Australia had to have a management strategy in place for the dingo, along with other native fauna. However, a recent paper (6) argues that dingoes are in fact C. familiaris because they don’t satisfy zoological nomenclature protocols nor sufficiently differ genetically or morphologically from other canids, including domestic dogs.

The Western Australian government cited this work in justifying its recent decision to declare the dingo a non-native species under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act (BCA) (7). The new order removesthe government requirement to manage the species. As a result, dingoes can now be killed anywhere in the state without a BCA license. A potential increase in lethal control of dingoes could have dire consequences for Australia’s ecosystems. The dingo is Australia’s largest terrestrial top predator (adults typically weigh 15 to 20 kg (8)), it fulfils a crucial ecological role, and it has strong cultural significance for Australia’s Indigenous people (8).

Taxonomy serves a critical purpose for cataloguing and conserving biodiversity, but different interpretations and applications of species concepts can affect management decisions. Policy-makers may use the interpretations that justify their preferred values, such as prioritizing livestock more than biodiversity protection. It is therefore imperative that scientists carefully engage in the policy decision-making process. Scientists must work with policy-makers to convey the multiple dimensions and values that can affect species delineation and make clear the potential consequences of applying such classifications.

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  2. Z.Fanetal.,Gen.Res.26,163(2016).
  3. F.E.Zachos, Mammal Rev.10.1111/mam.12121(2018).
  4. Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Government, “Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)” (1999); http://www.environment.gov.au/epbc
  5. K.M.Cairns, A.N.Wilton, Genetica 144,553(2016).
  6. S.M.Jackson et al., Zootaxa 4317,201(2017).
  7. M.Bamford, “Dingoes to remain classified as non-native wild dogs under reform to Western Australian law,” ABC News (2018); http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-28/dingoes-will-no-longer-be-native-animals-in-western-australia/10172448
  8. M.Letnic et al., Biol.Rev. 87,390(2012).

Ritchie EG, Smith BP, van Eeden LM, Nimmo DG (2018) Species definitions shape policy, Science PDF DOI