Sciency Words: Morphospecies

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.

6 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Morphospecies

    1. It just makes sense to me, but my gut has been wrong before, and that one paper really drove home the point that the morphospecies concept can lead to an enormous number of classification errors. So I’m not sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I suppose the danger is… if you call an alien species a bird or whatever, you start to assume it has lots of bird characteristics and that may be way-wrong. Snippet of information: a botany professor I once talked to said that DNA studies were upending a lot of the taxonomy in his field.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Most of what I read for this post focused on insects, but I feel like the morphospecies concept would be even more prevalent in a field like botany than it is in entomology.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It seems like convergent evolution could really mess up any use of morphospecies. It’s easy to think a dolphins and whales as being related to fish, although I suppose dissections would expose the divide. But in an alien biosphere, before we understood their version of DNA, morphospecies might well be the best we could do.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s a good example as well. I guess dolphins would not be confused with any specific species of fish, but they might get lumped together in the same morpho-class as fish.

      And that’s probably where the line really would need to be drawn, if we were classifying new organisms on a new world. As soon as we start using morpho-classes or morpho-phylums, we’d really be assuming relationships where relationships might not exist.

      Liked by 3 people

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