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Species Explosions

As deforestation ravages the unique island nation of Madagascar, lemurs have been having a particularly tough time staying alive. And when you couple their endangered state with their fluffiness, wide eyes, and perky tails, they are perfect poster children for endangered species in general. It would just be too awful if the world lost those cuddly little critters.

But could there be too many of them? Not too many individual lemurs, but too many species of lemur? Writing for the New Yorker, Anders Halverson asks if the current taxonomic model for divvying up species is creating so many of them that it is inevitable that the number of species listed as endangered will rise.

Over the past twenty years, the total number of lemurs known to science has exploded from 33 to 105. Some of this boom, which has the effect of creating more endangered lemur species, has happened because researchers far from Madagascar can use computer programs to differentiate neighboring groups of just a few hundred individuals, Halverson says, and each of these populations has been named a new species.

Ed Louis, a molecular biologist at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, identified fourteen new lemur species in 2006 alone.

Science has come a long way since Linnaeus created his taxonomies, and so has the ways that species are demarcated. The current Phylogenetic Species Concept works for scientists, but it also benefits groups or countries seeking funding for their endangered species and conservation, because PSC species generally have a smaller number of individuals than similar species under the earlier BSC model.

"Funding is frequently steered to those countries or regions with the most species, especially if they are endemic or charismatic. Endangered species have become especially potent tools for conservationists because they can generate funding and legal protection for entire ecosystems," Halverson writes.

The noted lemur expert Ian Tattersall, of the American Museum of Natural History, is ambivalent about the effects of the increasing number of lemur species. He says a "taxonomic inflation" has occurred among lemurs and other species groups, and he worries that divvying up similar creatures into too many species based on very small number of trait differences could create a backlash, particularly by those who oppose conservation efforts. However, Madagascar is still losing its forests.

"If recognizing lots of species is actually going to help to conserve some of these environments, I can’t really be against that," he says.