Frontiers in taxonomy

There are days when having a glass desk is a serious health hazard, because I run the risk of serious facial lacerations when I read certain things.

Take this extremely well-intended article at

Human-accelerated climate change is a disaster waiting to happen. We’ve already seen the superstorms and drought it can create. Although we can work to slow climate change, there’s no way to stop it completely. This reality means adaptation will once again become the most important strategy for survival.

One thing’s for sure: the Earth will continue to exist as it has for eons. The question is, what will be left behind to inhabit it? Below are five species known for their resilience and ability to survive in adverse conditions. They are the most likely to survive a climate change disaster.

If you’re going to write one of those web-traffic pandering List Posts — not a criticism: I’m writing one this weekend as it pays the bills — that’s not a bad topic to tackle. True, the fact that the article starts this way might cause an anticipatory eyeroll:

Survival of the fittest. This basic tenant of evolution explains why the dodo bird no longer exists and why humans have opposable thumbs.

I’m trying to imagine what a basic tenant of evolution looks like. Maybe a Sphenodon. She’s paid her rent on time since the Pleistocene, comes from a good family, never made noise or caused trouble. You know the type.

That said, if I start making fun of people for typos there’s about a decade and a half worth of mine online people can choose from.

And it’s a great idea for a post. What species are likely to survive the disastrous climate change we’re almost certainly facing in the next decades? Human-adapted pests, probably, like rock doves a.k.a. pigeons, Rattus norvegicus, German cockroaches, but those stories have been written over and over again. How about wild species? Western sagebrush, maybe: that complex of subspecies in Artemisia tridentata that’s only just gotten settled in the Intermountain West, and is busily evolving new regional strains since the end of the Pleistocene? Or invasive exotics in the wild? That’s be a good if not precisely new topic.

Nope. Here are the five “species” listed:

  1. Trees in the Amazon
  2. “Wolves and coyotes”
  3. Ants
  4. Algae
  5. Cockroaches.

We can call “species” 2 and 5 near misses: wolves and coyotes comprise two closely related species, and while there are about 4,500 species of cockroaches and five commonly found in human dwellings as pests, the author mentions one in particular, the American cockroach. Though that’s not the one you usually think of as surviving Armageddon.

But those others. “Trees in the Amazon” as a species? really? There’s not a single place on the planet you could have picked where there are more tree species. One estimate of species diversity for trees in the Amazon basin put the likely number of species in the Brazilian section alone as above 11,000.

There are an estimated 22,000 species of ants. The author says this, almost:

There are approximately 20,000 different species of ant, with colonies of millions located all over the world. They were here long before humans, and the odds are good that they’ll be here long after.

One has to wonder what the author thinks the word means, if a species can be made up of more than 20,000 species. “Taxon,” maybe? Hard to say.

And “algae.” The author says:

Once of the few species that has been around since the beginning of evolution (remember the primordial slime?), there are over 200,000 varieties [of algae] known to man.

A chance to use the word “species”  correctly, almost, but the author opts for “varieties” instead.

This is an inconsequential article and the author meant well. It’s a good thing to get people to think about. And Care2’s editors, if they have any over there, are really the people to blame here, if I were blaming rather than observing.  Which I’m not. Really.

But to quote the celebrated environmental scientist Rush Limbaugh, “words mean things.” Maybe it’s just PTSD from having spent most of my adult life editing prose by environmental activists. I may well have had a big red button pushed. But if you’re writing about saving the natural world, you need to know at least a little bit about the natural world. And when you write about threats to biodiversity, knowing the actual definition of the word that represents the basic unit of biodiversity is a good idea.

Lest you end up calling “algae” a species.


  1. John Morales says

    I don’t think in terms of species that would survive some planetary catastrophe, more in terms of domains.

    (Specifically, I think Archaea would survive pretty much anything short of a nearby gamma-ray burster that squarely hit the planet)

  2. Adam Welz says

    Never mind the amateurs at places like Treehugger and Care2 — it’s the so-called pro enviro journos that constantly screw this stuff up that amaze me with their blithe ignorance, e.g. the author of the recent pupfish piece in Wired and a bunch of contributors to Slate (one of whom has a PhD in zoology, but still can’t use the simple term ‘wild species’ accurately). Editors don’t know and couldn’t care, in my experience — when I’ve written in to politely correct basic misunderstandings, I routinely get treated like a weirdo. If business journos screwed up their terminology as badly as this crowd did, they’d be laughed outta the game in minutes.

  3. Ichthyic says

    I’m trying to imagine what a basic tenant of evolution looks like.

    maybe like a Spandrel?

  4. w00dview says

    Ah Care 2. Word of advice if you ever wander over there. Under no circumstances if you value your sanity should you read the comments on any story relating to vaccination. Why the writers themselves are pro vaccine, their readership are REALLY antivax. You will think you have stumbled onto a left wing version of WND.

  5. AsqJames says

    The “tenet”/”tenant” mistake irritates me unreasonably, moreso than other similar errors for some reason. It’s not a typo though, as I hear it spoken out loud as well as see it written down.

  6. ronsullivan says

    What, you don’t remember the primordial slime? You young puppy, you.

    In other news: Thank you for # 5. Except I think I hurt myself.

  7. carlie says

    I have noticed a definite issue of student writing being just like this – they latch one to one scientific word, and then use it as a stand-in for any other noun they can’t think of. So we have “and this species has over 20,000 species” as in this article, and I get test answers like “the cells are where the plant grows branches and the flowers are the part of the cell where reproduction happens”.

  8. ChasCPeterson says

    ‘spandrel’ heh

    If you want to read a serious (and beautifully written) treatment of the question, check out Planet of Weeds.

    “Hope is a duty from which paleontologists are exempt.”

  9. bortedwards says

    Ok, so semantic and species concept issues aside, I reeeeally can’t wrap my mind around what the hell he’s even trying to drive at. Is he saying that because ants are so numerous (species wise) they are statistically less likely to go extinct than other animal species? By law of averages the sheer number of species of ants reduces the likelihood they will all get unlucky in the extinction lottery? Well shit, that’s not news, and a vapid non-comparison. Albatrosses are less likely to go extinct as a whole than pandas, despite both GROUPS being endangered.
    Or is he saying that ants are inherently more robust animals than others? That’s flawed too. ALL extant species are the result of lineages that have survived *exactly* the same length of time, and to a greater or lesser extent, the same gross global changes over that time, one way or another. Just because ants happen to be more species diverse in this current time slice is no guarantee they will be better survivors tomorrow. Ask the trilobites. It could be through stochastic bad luck, or Eg warming temperature could promote an ant killing bacteria ala frogs and chitrid fungus that wipes the lot out and leaves nostrodamus’ like him looking dopey.
    I’m sure I’m over thinking this, but I think my point is his logic is flawed on multiple levels.

  10. iknklast says

    I teach environmental science to college freshmen, and this looks about like what I get from them. Name a species that is (fill in the blank). Tree. Name a species that (fill in blank). Grass. What’s even worse? House. Rock.

    And name an animal would almost always generate a mammal…the smallest group of animals known. Never a bird because they’re…well, birds. I said animal, right? And an insect? Not possible. Insects aren’t animals, are they?

    Ignorance of the world is scary.

  11. Holms says

    While it is true that there has been little trend for the last 15ish years, the generally accepted minimum timeframe before ‘weather’ becomes ‘climate’ is 30 years. Not sure how rigorous that number is – it may just be a loose convention – but be sure to get back to us oh in about 15 years.

  12. says

    I also like the conflation of “environmentalism” with “climate change activism.” Not that a number of people on the enviro side haven’t forgotten that there are other issues. But still. I have the image of people saying “no climate change? WHEW! Thank god we only have the looming mass extinction to worry about then! Let’s all go home!”

    Which many human-centered enviros likely would, it’s true.

  13. Acolyte of Sagan says

    I can’t say which species will survive, what with not having supernatural powers and all that, but I can, I think, safely prophesise that, even when the human race is down to its last handful of people, at least one of them will be praying for a god to save them, and at least one will be saying “Climate change! What climate change? Those scientificalists in their labbatories have scared everybody to death.”
    And they’ll probably be the same person.

  14. David Marjanović says

    15 years of no global warming!?! Maybe if you’re so disingenuous as to draw a straight line from 1998 (El Niño – unusually warm) to 2011 (La Niña – unusually cool), that line will be horizontal. In that case you should be ashamed.

    Rattus norwegicus

    Rattus norvegicus.

    the word that represents the basic unit of biodiversity

    This doesn’t diminish any of your points, but I’m not convinced there is such a thing as a unit of biodiversity. That’s why there are, as of February 2008, 147 different species concepts that all describe different entities. They have nothing in common except the word “species”. Depending on the species concept, there are from 101 to 249 endemic bird species in Mexico. Wolves and coyotes can interbreed (indeed, that’s where the red wolves come from)… but there’s no species concept that would include anywhere near all “trees in the Amazon” or “ants” or “algae” or “cockroaches”.

    “Hope is a duty from which paleontologists are exempt.”

    I like that.

  15. says

    Rattus norvegicus.

    Fixed. Thank you.

    This doesn’t diminish any of your points, but I’m not convinced there is such a thing as a unit of biodiversity. That’s why there are, as of February 2008, 147 different species concepts that all describe different entities.

    Oh, you bet. But the intent is to approach such a unit, I think it’s fair to say.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Maybe if you’re so disingenuous as to draw a straight line from

    Uh, just follow the links in comments 20 and 21. Those comments were posted while I was writing.

  17. StevoR, fallible human being says

    @15. jonjermey :

    After fifteen years of no global warming, the most endangered species I know is environmentalists.

    Sounds like there’s a whole lot of endangered species you’ve never heard of – and humans include “environmentalists” and our species is astronomical units away from endangered species status.

    Also that 15 years of cooling claim? Pretty sure that was pulled from some journos backside rather than being actual scientific fact – please see :

    Seriously. Check that out and think about it.

    Y’know jonjermey, I’m fairly confident that you are no rocket scientist. Y’know what people who *are* rocket scientists say ’bout this?

    NASA – actual rocket scientists say here :

    That 2010 was the hottest year on record tied with 2005 among a whole lot more.

    More recently still 2011 was the hottest ever La Nina (cooler temp cycle) cycle year on record.

    In addition surely you’ve heard that the 2012 Arctic sea ice observations broke all records for lowest extent ever known, right? No? How about taking a look at what the experts say over at the National Snow and Ice Data Center :

    These are three major facts y’might wanna consider before spouting off about it supposedly “not heating for the past 16 years” coz that’s simply factually wrong.