Should we let some tiger species die to save others?

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Radically altering the way animals are classified could allow for some existing types of creatures to be sacrificed in order to focus conservation efforts on preventing the extinction of other, similar populations, researchers report in the journal Science Advances.

In fact, according to Discovery News, lead author Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, and his colleagues argue that seven of the nine existing tiger subspecies (Bengal, Caspian, Amur, Javan, South Chinese, Balinese, Sumatran, Indochinese, and Malayan) should be eliminated. Seven tiger species?! Eliminated?

That would leave just two subspecies, Sunda tiger and the continental tiger, which Wilting and his co-authors explained would allow the so-called continental tigers, such as failing populations in South China and Indochina, to be “managed as a single conservation unit” in the future.

“A classification into too many subspecies – with weak or even no scientific support – reduces the scope of action for breeding and rehabilitation programs,” he told the website. If struggling tigers continue “to be classified as separate subspecies, they would likely face extinction.”

Current taxonomy is ‘invalid’ for many species

The authors explained that “significantly more money” is spent as part of tiger conservation efforts than on any other type of threatened creature. In spite of this, however, as few as 3,200 tigers could be alive in the wild in Asia. Part of the problem, they argue, is the lack of both a comprehensive analysis of tiger variation and a consensus on subspecies.

They analyzed the variation between all nine current subspecies of tiger using morphological, ecological and molecular data, and found “little variation and large overlaps” amongst the traits of several types of tigers. Their analysis concluded that there should only be two recognized tiger subspecies: the Sunda tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) and the continental tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), which consists of a pair of management units, northern and southern.

Currently, subspecies are largely defined by a population’s primary geographic region – hence the use of locations in their subspecies names, according to Discovery News. Based on an in-depth analysis of the structure and form of more than 200 tiger skulls, coloration, genetic data, and more, Wilting’s team found that only the Sumatra, Java, and Bali were different enough to warrant being classified into a subspecies separate from all other types of tigers.

“The problem with using the geographical distribution is that it is arbitrary where to draw the lines, particularly on continuous habitats such as continental Asia,” he told Discovery News. “We are certain that for many other species, the current taxonomy is invalid. Most species and subspecies were described hundreds of decades ago, mainly based on a low number of available specimens.”


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