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What is a Subspecies?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A subspecies is an individual division within a species, meaning that the members of the sub-group are individual enough that they cannot be lumped together, but they are not so distinct that they are entirely different species. This biological specification can be a bit confusing, and the categorizations are constantly being adjusted and changed to deal with new information. As a general rule, you can think of it as being almost like a race of individuals, although human races are not considered subspecies, for a variety of biological and political reasons.

Before delving into what makes a subspecies, it may help to think about the taxonomic rank of “species.” A species is an individual class of organisms that are distinctive from other animals, and unable to breed with other groups of animals. Members of a species are defined on the basis of their differences, which may be quite diverse or very minimal. For example, you can probably think of a lot of differences between an elephant and a pet cat, because these animals are considered to be different species, but there are also differences between Indian and African elephants that lead them to be classified as being in different species, despite superficial resemblances.

Many people think of “species” as the terminal taxonomic rank, since it does imply a sense of finality. In fact, many species are extremely diverse, and as a result, the smaller rank emerged to do justice to this diversity. The different subspecies within a species are distinctive and unique from each other, but they are still capable of interbreeding.

One example that you may be familiar with is the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, as opposed to the wolf Canis lupus lupus, or the dingo, Canis lupus dingo. All of these animals can interbreed, but they are morphologically distinct, and they lead very different lives. Within the genus of Canus, lupus is considered to be a “polytypic species,” meaning that it has a number of subspecies; a species with no smaller divisions is called a “monotypic species.”

There are a number of ways to indicate a subspecies. In the method used above, animals are identified as Genus species subspecies. You may also see “ssp” or “subspecies” in binomial nomenclature, like this: Panthera tigris ssp. altaica, for the Siberian tiger.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a subspecies in the animal kingdom?

A subspecies is a taxonomic category that ranks below species, representing a population or group of populations within a species that have distinct morphological or genetic characteristics. These differences are often due to geographical separation, leading to adaptations to specific environments, but the populations can still interbreed with the main species if given the chance.

How do scientists determine if animals belong to different subspecies?

Scientists use a combination of morphological, genetic, and behavioral data to determine subspecies. Morphological differences may include variations in size, color, or other physical traits. Genetic studies involve analyzing DNA sequences to identify distinct lineages. Behavioral studies can also reveal differences in mating calls or other behaviors that are unique to certain populations.

Can subspecies interbreed, and if so, what are the implications?

Yes, subspecies can interbreed as they are part of the same species. The resulting offspring are typically fertile, which distinguishes subspecies from separate species where hybrids are often sterile. Interbreeding can have implications for conservation, as it may lead to genetic homogenization and loss of unique adaptations that help subspecies survive in specific environments.

Why is the classification of subspecies important for conservation efforts?

Classifying subspecies is crucial for conservation because it helps identify genetically distinct populations that may require targeted protection. Some subspecies may be more endangered than others, and recognizing this can prioritize conservation resources. It also aids in maintaining genetic diversity within a species, which is vital for adaptability and long-term survival.

Are there any controversies surrounding the concept of subspecies?

Yes, the concept of subspecies is sometimes controversial among scientists. The criteria for defining a subspecies are not always clear-cut, leading to debates over whether certain populations should be classified as such. Additionally, some argue that the focus on subspecies can detract from broader species conservation efforts.

How does the concept of subspecies relate to human-induced changes in the environment?

Human-induced environmental changes can impact subspecies by altering their habitats and potentially forcing them to adapt or migrate. This can lead to the emergence of new subspecies or the extinction of existing ones. Conservation efforts must consider these changes to ensure the protection of subspecies and the preservation of biodiversity.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By CuriousRay — On Apr 29, 2012

For organisms which do not breed sexually, how is a species defined, simply by subjective criteria such as magnitude of differences?

By CuriousRay — On Apr 25, 2012

Would it be incorrect to explain the species/subspecies relationship in terms of sets? Each species is a set of organisms which can interbreed with each other, but which cannot interbreed with organisms that are not members of the set.

A subspecies is a subset of a species which is somehow separated from, or highly distinctive from the rest of the species, but not in ability to interbreed with the rest of the species. Also, subspecies can often be described as "fuzzy" sets, i.e., their definitions are not "hard and fast", while the definitions of species are rather unambiguous: "Breeding is possible only within the species/set". I realize, of course, that my definition only applies to organisms which breed sexually.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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