Nature 440, 524-527 (23 March 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature04402; Received 26 July 2005; ; Accepted 3 November 2005

The nature of plant species

Loren H. Rieseberg1, Troy E. Wood1 and Eric J. Baack1

Many botanists doubt the existence of plant species1, 2, 3, 4, 5, viewing them as arbitrary constructs of the human mind, as opposed to discrete, objective entities that represent reproductively independent lineages or 'units of evolution'. However, the discreteness of plant species and their correspondence with reproductive communities have not been tested quantitatively, allowing zoologists to argue that botanists have been overly influenced by a few 'botanical horror stories', such as dandelions, blackberries and oaks6, 7. Here we analyse phenetic and/or crossing relationships in over 400 genera of plants and animals. We show that although discrete phenotypic clusters exist in most genera (> 80%), the correspondence of taxonomic species to these clusters is poor (< 60%) and no different between plants and animals. Lack of congruence is caused by polyploidy, asexual reproduction and over-differentiation by taxonomists, but not by contemporary hybridization. Nonetheless, crossability data indicate that 70% of taxonomic species and 75% of phenotypic clusters in plants correspond to reproductively independent lineages (as measured by postmating isolation), and thus represent biologically real entities. Contrary to conventional wisdom8, plant species are more likely than animal species to represent reproductively independent lineages.

  1. Department of Biology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA

Correspondence to: Loren H. Rieseberg1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to L.H.R. (Email: lriesebe@indiana.edu).

Received 26 July 2005 | Accepted 3 November 2005


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