Species complexes and the importance of Data Deficient classification in Red List assessments: The case of Hylobatrachus frogs

Scherz, Mark D. ORCID; Glaw, Frank GND; Hutter, Carl R.; Bletz, Molly; Rakotoarison, Andolalao GND; Köhler, Jörn; Vences, Miguel ORCID

Taxonomy is the cornerstone of extinction risk assessments. Currently, the IUCN Red List treats species complexes either under a single overarching species name-resulting in an unhelpfully broad circumscription and underestimated threat assessment that does not apply to any one species lineage-or omits them altogether-resulting in the omission of species that should be assessed. We argue that taxonomic uncertainty alone, as in species complexes, should be grounds for assessment as Data Deficient (DD). Yet, use of the DD category is currently discouraged, resulting in assessments based on poor data quality and dismissal of the importance of taxonomic confidence in conservation. This policy may be leading to volatile and unwarranted assessments of hundreds of species across the world, and needs to be revised. To illustrate this point, we here present a partial taxonomic revision of torrent frogs from eastern Madagascar in the Mantidactylus subgenus Hylobatrachus. Two named species, Mantidactylus (Hylobatrachus) lugubris and M. (H.) cowanii, and several undescribed candidate species are recognised, but the application of the available names has been somewhat ambiguous. In a recent re-assessment of its conservation status, M. (H.) lugubris was assessed including all complex members except M. (H.) cowanii within its distribution, giving it a status of Least Concern and distribution over most of eastern Madagascar. After describing two of the unnamed lineages as Mantidactylus (Hylobatrachus) atsimo sp. nov. (from southeastern Madagascar) and Mantidactylus (Hylobatrachus) petakorona sp. nov. (from the Marojejy Massif in northeastern Madagascar), we show that Mantidactylus (Hylobatrachus) lugubris is restricted to the central east of Madagascar, highlighting the inaccuracy of its current Red List assessment. We propose to re-assess its status under a more restrictive definition that omits well-defined candidate species, thus representing the actual species to which its assessment refers, to the best of current knowledge. We recommend that for species complexes in general, (1) nominal lineages that can be confidently restricted should be assessed under the strict definition, (2) non-nominal species-level lineages and ambiguous names should be prioritised for taxonomic research, and (3) ambiguous names should be assessed as DD to highlight the deficiency in data on their taxonomic status, which is an impediment to their conservation. This would reduce ambiguity and underestimation of threats involved in assessing species complexes, and place the appropriate emphasis on the importance of taxonomy in anchoring conservation.


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Scherz, D.M., Glaw, F., Hutter, R.C., Bletz, C.M., Rakotoarison, A., Köhler, J., Vences, M., 2019. Species complexes and the importance of Data Deficient classification in Red List assessments: The case of Hylobatrachus frogs.
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