The word subspecies is a taxonomic category that, based on its name, is understood to be below the species. Although it may seem like a relatively easy taxon to understand, it is actually quite complex, so much so that it is even confused with other labels used in zoology, specifically race and variety. Subspecies examples
Are there differences between these three words? Are there subspecies in the human species? Why so much controversy? We will answer all these questions below.
What is a subspecies?
Broadly speaking, a subspecies is a taxonomic category that refers to each of the groups in which a species is found . These groups, in addition to having the characteristics of the species in which they are found, have special morphological characters that make them different from each other.
The term subspecies is somewhat controversial and it is difficult to understand it without first understanding what the concepts of “race” and “variety” are in zoology, terms which are sometimes used as synonyms for “subspecies” in an inappropriate way. From the strictly systematic point of view, this taxon would be halfway between a species and a zoological race or botanical variety.
In taxonomy, to refer to a subspecies the trinominal nomenclature is used, that is, made up of three words . The first, which is the generic one, refers to the taxonomic genus. The second, the specific one, refers to the species. And the third, the subspecific, refers to the subspecies in question.
For example, dogs are a subspecies, called Canis lupus familiaris . Canis lupus is the species, in which both dogs and wolves are included, being the “familiaris” what refers to the domestic dog. If we said Canis lupus lupus we would refer to the gray wolf, the most common wolf. Subspecies examples
What are races and varieties?
As we have commented, before going into more depth about what a subspecies is, it is necessary to understand the differences between race and variety, since these three concepts are very confused, in addition to being controversial.
What they undoubtedly have in common is that they designate some type of animal population, always within a species and that is distinguished from the rest of its congeners by some visible morphological feature.
Races are groups into which species are subdivided, taking into account their phenotypic traits, that is, those that are external . Living beings have a genotype, which is the set of instructions and genetic codes that are stored in our DNA, and a phenotype, which is the part of the genotype that is manifested externally. Both are inheritable.
Races are a biological reality, but they are not taxonomic categories used in zoology. That is, scientifically speaking, a group of individuals cannot be designated using the label of race, although they do have descriptive value.
At present, without leaving the field of zoology applied to non-human animals, the term “breed” is used exclusively for domestic animals , which is why we speak of breeds of cows, breeds of sheep or breeds of dogs, but not breeds. of lions, breeds of eagles or breeds of whales.
As it is used to refer to domestic species, its use is usually related to animals that have been artificially selected, that is, their physical characteristics are the result of human intervention. For example, the Friesian cow has large udders or the sheep have a lot of wool thanks to the fact that farmers have been selecting and allowing those that meet these characteristics to reproduce. The same is true of hunting dogs and racehorses.
From all this it follows that races involve visible physical traits . Each breed has a size, figure, hair color, limb shape, height and other striking aspects, which differentiate them from the others. This is easy to see by comparing a Chihuahua with a Great Dane who, despite being both of the same species, have very different features. But, however different these dog breeds are, if crossed, they will give fertile offspring. They all share the same genetic or phylogeny profile. Subspecies examples
The term variety is very vague, and is often used as a synonym for race despite not being so . As with race, it does not constitute a taxonomic category in zoology, but it does in botany. In the plant world the word “variety” refers to a taxonomic category below “subspecies” and above “form”.
Until 1961 variety was used in the world of zoology in the same sense as subspecies. However, it was from that year on that the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) would only use the category “subspecies” below “species” and no more.
At present, and despite the fact that it is no longer a zoological taxon, the word variety is used in zoology to indicate a population of individuals of a species that differs from other congeners in a single morphological trait. This is a difference from race, since races involve several morphological traits.
If the term “breed” is used mostly for domestic animals, the word “variety” is used for wildlife and plants . Despite this, both terms highlight the idea that the different populations, be they races or varieties, will always maintain the same genetic profile as their reference population, that is, the species as a whole or the subspecies from which it is extracted. .
We have a case of variety in the case of the black panther. The black panther is not a species or subspecies by itself, but is a variety of the leopard , only that it presents melanism, a biological condition that causes it to have an excessively pigmented skin tone. Panthers and leopards are part of the Panthera pardus species . Panthers and leopards are, morphologically speaking, identical except for the fact that the former are totally black.
Subspecies and taxonomy: getting to the bottom of the matter
Having understood the ideas of what race and variety are, we go into more detail about the subspecies, and why this term is controversial. This is not surprising, given that its category immediately above it, the species, is a much disputed term. If it is already difficult to establish where a species begins and where it ends, this same question with the subspecies becomes more complicated . Likewise, unlike variety and race, the subspecies is a taxonomic category, such as a species, kingdom, family or class. Subspecies examples
As we were already commenting at the beginning, a subspecies is a group of individuals of a species that, in addition to sharing its own characteristics, have other morphological characters in common that distinguish them from other subspecies or from the nominal population. Based on this definition, it may appear that subspecies and race are the same, but this is not the case. Their fundamental difference is that in the race the fundamental genetic unit of the species is maintained, while in the subspecies different genetic lines are constituted .
It could be said that the subspecies are the previous step for the formation of a new species, as long as the right conditions are in place. Normally, in the wild, the subspecies of the same species do not share territory or overlap with each other , thus they do not interbreed, causing them to evolve separately until reaching a point where they cannot interbreed and have fertile hybrid offspring. considered this as the line that shows that they are no longer part of the same species.
Do all species have subspecies?
Not all species have subspecies. There are species, called monotypic, that do not have subspecies . That is to say, they can have races or varieties but, as we have said before, all the individuals of that species, beyond presenting one or more morphological differences, come from the same genetic line. An example of this would be the case of the hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus).
In contrast, species that do have subspecies are called polytypic . They do have populations with different morphological traits and from different genetic lines. Within these species, the first population of that species that was described is known as a nominotypic population, usually being the one that gives the species its name as a whole.
Some examples of polytypic species are Canis lupus, with Canis lupus familiaris and Canis lupus lupus, or Panthera tigris (tiger), with Panthera tigris tigris and Panthera tigris probeica. Subspecies examples
The controversy with the term subspecies
We have the controversy of the term subspecies in the fact that, despite being a taxonomic category, the way in which it was decided that it was a subspecies and what could be considered as a race or variety was very little objective.
Although at present the emphasis has been on studying the genetic profile of populations , until recently the way in which it was decided whether one was a subspecies or not was, basically, to see how different their traits were with respect to the population nominotypic.
It used to be that the one who had “discovered” the subspecies was the one who had made the description and highlighted, without neglecting subjectivity, traits that they considered as sufficient indicators that it was a very different population from the one that had previously been discovered.
There are many cases of this. For example, in the case of Panthera tigris , until 2017 it was considered that there were up to 9 subspecies of this big cat. However, that same year, and based on the genetic profile, it was established that, in reality, there were only the two that we have mentioned before: Panthera tigris tigris and Panthera tigris probeica . The rest of the old subspecies can be included in one of these two current subspecies, being varieties.
What about the human being?
Thanks to paleoanthropological excavations, remains of hominids have been found, which have allowed us to understand where we today come from. These discoveries have made it possible to draw the evolutionary tree of humans , but they have also aroused unknowns and controversy. Subspecies examples
Until relatively recently it was considered that modern humans do not have subspecies. The reason why we came to have a trinominal name, Homo sapiens sapiens , was the discovery of Neanderthals, who were considered a subspecies within Homo sapiens .
However, with the passage of time the idea that Neanderthals were sapiens was discarded , although it is true that they could interbreed with the first of our species and have fertile offspring. This is cause for real debate, since if they were a different species than ours, how was it possible that they could interbreed with us? In theory, two species are different if their offspring are typically not fertile or capable of surviving to sexual maturity.
Despite the fact that Neanderthals are no longer considered Homo sapiens , in the 1990s, skeletal remains of what is still considered a human subspecies to this day were discovered: Homo sapiens idaltu . If it were truly a subspecies and not a human race with human variety, our lineage would have to be renamed Homo sapiens sapiens .
But all this is not what generates the worst controversy in the case of the scientific study of the human species. What generates real controversy is talking about whether human beings are currently subdivided into races .
It is clear that human beings are not physically homogeneous speaking. If we think of an African person, a person with dark skin, thick lips and frizzy hair comes to mind. If, on the other hand, we try to imagine an Asian person, we think of someone with paler skin, slanted eyes, and straight dark hair. In the case of a white person from northern Europe, we think of someone with very pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. Subspecies examples
All these descriptions are very generic and, clearly, within the same breed there is a diversity of morphological traits. However, it is clear that races, in their traditional definition, exist as categories to describe physical traits. We do not know how many there are and we cannot say where one “begins” and where another “ends” , in addition to the fact that there is miscegenation and if two people of different races have a sterile child, it is most likely due to medical problems not related to the races of their parents. No matter how many races there are, there is unity in the genetic lineage in modern human beings.
Despite all this, there are not a few people who consider that the acceptance of this is racist and that, really, there are no races within the human species. The reason for this lies in the history of the scientific study of races, which began in the 19th century and which implied catastrophic consequences at the social level , being a motive for racial segregation, eugenics and genocides, although it should be noted that racism was not “invented” in that century.
The scientific study of races
We have one of the most important antecedents of the scientific study of races in The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The publication of this book coincided with the Second Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America.
The Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries reached great levels of economic, cultural and social development, changing their way of seeing the world and considering themselves superior peoples. The white countries set out to “civilize” each other and the right to exploit them . It is the rise of social Darwinism. Subspecies examples
Behind these ideas the colonization of Africa was justified, a continent that the European powers shared like a cake. Later, it would motivate the creation of segregating laws in the United States and the application of Apartheid in South Africa, along with the implementation of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
Fortunately, after the end of the Second World War, the population of Western countries gradually became more sensitive to racial injustices . This motivated the scientific study of races to decline in the 1950s, which was positive for ending social Darwinian ideas, but at the same time producing the radically opposite and separate effect of biological evidence: they do not exist human races. Subspecies examples
Biological aspects vs sociocultural constructs
The new vision held that instead of using the word “race” the term “ethnicity” should be chosen. The first refers to a biological reality, while the second refers to a sociocultural aspect, something that depends on the identity and personal history of each one.
For example, a person of African race who has been adopted by Swedish parents, who speaks Swedish, who feels Swedish, who dresses in a Western way, is Lutheran and is called Anette Bergquist is, without a doubt, a person of Swedish ethnicity . Being of African race does not prevent her from being Swedish, and her Swedish ethnicity does not make her neither more nor less black. Both realities are perfectly combinable and nobody can tell you that it is less of each thing.
This same idea can be extrapolated to biological sex and gender identity. Sex is biological, determined by the X and Y chromosomes. A person with XX chromosomes is female, while a person with XY chromosomes is male. Gender, on the other hand, is a sociocultural construct, and depends on the identity of each one. Being a woman, a man or of a non-binary gender is not something determined by sex, although culturally the man-masculine and woman-feminine binomial predominates. Subspecies examples
A transgender woman is a person whose gender is that of a woman, forming part of her identity, but her sex will remain male. Being male does not invalidate your gender identity as a woman, in the same way that being female does not invalidate being a male gender in the case of trans men.
Be that as it may, a biological reality should not be considered as a solid argument to discuss one’s own experience and identity . Race and sex are biological aspects, scientifically approachable from the health sciences, while both ethnicity and gender are aspects corresponding to the social sciences, aspects that depend on how the individual’s personal history has been and that constitute their Vital experience.