Conservation of Covert Species:
Protecting Species We Don't Even Know


1 U.S. Geological Survey, Biology Department,
University of California, Riverside, CA 92421, USA / e-mail:
2 Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, Drawer E, Aiken, SC 29802, USA / e-mail:

        Abstract:  Advances in molecular biology and morphometrics are resolving systematic relationships at an unprecedented rate.  As new species are discovered or recognized, the conservation burden becomes greater, emphasizing the need for protecting biodiversity at the level of major landscapes and ecosystems that are obviously composed of many species, including those not recognized as present.  “Covert” species are those that (1) are hidden by faulty taxonomy, (2) possess significant intraspecific genetic variation, (3) have sibling species with poorly known distributions, or (4) are undescribed.  In at least one case, a reptile species almost became extinct because of faulty taxonomy.  Some species of recently described turtles are facing significant threats to their long-term survival, but as yet have no legal conservation status.  Sibling species and undescribed species present special challenges to conservation.  We can no longer afford the luxury of single-species conservation programs, nor wait for unidentified species to be described formally.  Regional conservation efforts emphasizing the protection of communities that encompass sensitive as well as non-endangered species, including covert species, provide a proactive alternative to the tradition of listing single species for protective status.

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