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Taxonomic surrogacy in biodiversity assessments, and the meaning of Linnaean ranks

Journal article
Authors Y. Bertrand
Fredrik Pleijel
G. W. Rouse
Published in Systematics and Biodiversity
Volume 4
Pages 149-159
Publication year 2006
Published at Department of Marine Ecology
Pages 149-159
Language en
Keywords Taxonomic surrogacy; biodiversity; Polychaeta; Linnaean ranks
Subject categories Ecology


The majority of biodiversity assessments use species as the base unit. Recently, a series of studies have suggested replacing numbers of species with higher ranked taxa (genera, families, etc.); a method known as taxonomic surrogacy that has an important potential to save time and resources in assesments of biological diversity. We examine the relationships between taxa and ranks, and suggest that species/higher taxon exchanges are founded on misconceptions about the properties of Linnaean classification. Rank allocations in current classifications constitute a heterogeneous mixture of various historical and contemporary views. Even if all taxa were monophyletic, those referred to the same rank would simply denote separate clades without further equivalence. We conclude that they are no more comparable than any other, non-nested taxa, such as, for example, the genus Rattus and the phylum Arthropoda, and that taxonomic surrogacy lacks justification. These problems are also illustrated with data of polychaetous annelid worms from a broad-scale study of benthic biodiversity and species distributions in the Irish Sea. A recent consensus phylogeny for polychaetes is used to provide three different family-level classifications of polychaetes. We use families as a surrogate for species, and present Shannon–Wiener diversity indices for the different sites and the three different classifications, showing how the diversity measures rely on subjective rank allocations

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