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Mol Ecol. 2018 Feb;27(3):613-635. doi: 10.1111/mec.14486. Epub 2018 Feb 16.

Cryptic species as a window into the paradigm shift of the species concept.

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SubBio Lab, Department of Biology, Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Department of Aquatic Ecology, Eawag, Dübendorf, Switzerland.
Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland.
Université Lyon, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, CNRS, ENTPE, UMR5023 LEHNA, Villeurbanne, France.


The species concept is the cornerstone of biodiversity science, and any paradigm shift in the delimitation of species affects many research fields. Many biologists now are embracing a new "species" paradigm as separately evolving populations using different delimitation criteria. Individual criteria can emerge during different periods of speciation; some may never evolve. As such, a paradigm shift in the species concept relates to this inherent heterogeneity in the speciation process and species category-which is fundamentally overlooked in biodiversity research. Cryptic species fall within this paradigm shift: they are continuously being reported from diverse animal phyla but are poorly considered in current tests of ecological and evolutionary theory. The aim of this review is to integrate cryptic species in biodiversity science. In the first section, we address that the absence of morphological diversification is an evolutionary phenomenon, a "process" counterpart to the long-studied mechanisms of morphological diversification. In the next section regarding taxonomy, we show that molecular delimitation of cryptic species is heavily biased towards distance-based methods. We also stress the importance of formally naming of cryptic species for better integration into research fields that use species as units of analysis. Finally, we show that incorporating cryptic species leads to novel insights regarding biodiversity patterns and processes, including large-scale biodiversity assessments, geographic variation in species distribution and species coexistence. It is time for incorporating multicriteria species approaches aiming to understand speciation across space and taxa, thus allowing integration into biodiversity conservation while accommodating for species uncertainty.


Amphipoda; biodiversity patterns; convergent evolution; integrative taxonomy; phylogenetic niche conservatism; speciation

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