What is a Species?

Learning Objectives

  • Define species and describe how species are identified as different

A basic and generally accepted definition of the term species is a group of individual organisms that interbreed and produce fertile, viable offspring. According to this definition, one species is distinguished from another when, in nature, it is not possible for matings between individuals from each species to produce fertile offspring. It is important to note that this definition fits eukaryotic organisms fairly well, but that species are often defined quite differently in prokaryotic lineages. For the purposes of this lesson, we will focus on this definition of species applied to eukaryotes. Later in the course, we will touch upon prokaryotic species.

Members of the same species share both external and internal characteristics, which develop from their DNA. The closer relationship two organisms share, the more DNA they have in common, just like people and their families. People’s DNA is likely to be more similar to their father or mother’s DNA than their cousin or grandparent’s DNA. Organisms of the same species have the highest level of DNA alignment and therefore share characteristics and behaviors that lead to successful reproduction.

Species’ appearance can be misleading in suggesting an ability or inability to mate. For example, even though domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) display phenotypic differences, such as size, build, and coat, most dogs can interbreed and produce viable puppies that can mature and sexually reproduce (Figure 1).

Photo a shows a poodle with curly short fur. Photo b shows a cocker spaniel with long, wavy fur that has light brown parts and cream-colored markings on the face, forepaws, belly, hind legs, and tail. The poodle has longer legs than the cocker spaniel. The cockapoo in photo c has curly hair, like the poodle, and short legs, like the cocker spaniel.

Figure 1. The (a) poodle and (b) cocker spaniel can reproduce to produce a breed known as (c) the cockapoo. (credit a: modification of work by Sally Eller, Tom Reese; credit b: modification of work by Jeremy McWilliams; credit c: modification of work by Kathleen Conklin)

In other cases, individuals may appear similar although they are not members of the same species. For example, even though bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and African fish eagles (Haliaeetus vocifer) are both birds and eagles, each belongs to a separate species group (Figure 2). If humans were to artificially intervene and fertilize the egg of a bald eagle with the sperm of an African fish eagle and a chick did hatch, that offspring, called a hybrid (a cross between two species), would probably be infertile—unable to successfully reproduce after it reached maturity. Different species may have different genes that are active in development; therefore, it may not be possible to develop a viable offspring with two different sets of directions. Thus, even though hybridization may take place, the two species still remain separate.

Photo a shows a picture of the African fish eagle in flight, and photo b shows the bald eagle perched on a post.

Figure 2. The (a) African fish eagle is similar in appearance to the (b) bald eagle, but the two birds are members of different species. (credit a: modification of work by Nigel Wedge; credit b: modification of work by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Populations of species share a gene pool: a collection of all the variants of genes in the species. Again, the basis to any changes in a group or population of organisms must be genetic for this is the only way to share and pass on traits. When variations occur within a species, they can only be passed to the next generation along two main pathways: asexual reproduction or sexual reproduction. The change will be passed on asexually simply if the reproducing cell possesses the changed trait. For the changed trait to be passed on by sexual reproduction, a gamete, such as a sperm or egg cell, must possess the changed trait. In other words, sexually-reproducing organisms can experience several genetic changes in their body cells, but if these changes do not occur in a sperm or egg cell, the changed trait will never reach the next generation. Only heritable traits can evolve. Therefore, reproduction plays a paramount role for genetic change to take root in a population or species. In short, organisms must be able to reproduce with each other to pass new traits to offspring.

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