Hello, friends! Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists like to use. In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:
The clearest definition I’ve found for “morphospecies” comes from Wiktionary. According to Wiktionary, a morphospecies is: “A species distinguished from others only by its morphology.” In other words, do these two animals look alike? If so, then they’re the same morphospecies. This is in contrast to taxonomic or phylogenic species, which take other factors into account, like evolutionary history or reproductive compatibility.
Classifying organisms by their physical appearance alone will lead to obvious problems. Think of caterpillars and butterflies, as an example. Or think of all the plants and animals that have evolved to mimic other plants and animals. As this paper from the Journal of Insect Science warns, the morphospecies concept should only be used in circumstances “where morphospecies have been assessed as reliable surrogates for taxonomic species beforehand.”
However, in some cases physical appearance may be the only thing we know about an organism or group of organisms. I’ve been reading a lot about xenophyophores lately. They’re my new favorite unicellular organisms (more about them later this week). Xenophyophores live in the deepest, darkest reaches of the ocean, and marine biologists have had a very difficult time studying them. Given how little we know about xenophyophores, classifying them by physical appearance alone may be (in some cases, at least) the best we can do.
As a science fiction writer, I wonder how useful the morphospecies concept would be for studying and categorizing life forms on some newly discovered alien world. It would be problematic, for sure, and I’d want to read more about this topic before sticking the word “morphospecies” into a story. But my gut feeling is that classifying alien organisms by morphospecies might be the best we could do, at least at first.