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Impacts of Phylogenetic Nomenclature on the Efficacy of the U.S. Endangered Species Act


Cataloging biodiversity is critical to conservation efforts because accurate taxonomy is often a precondition for protection under laws designed for species conservation, such as the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). Traditional nomenclatural codes governing the taxonomic process have recently come under scrutiny because taxon names are more closely linked to hierarchical ranks than to the taxa themselves. A new approach to naming biological groups, called phylogenetic nomenclature (PN), explicitly names taxa by defining their names in terms of ancestry and descent. PN has the potential to increase nomenclatural stability and decrease confusion induced by the rank-based codes. But proponents of PN have struggled with whether species and infraspecific taxa should be governed by the same rules as other taxa or should have special rules. Some proponents advocate the wholesale abandonment of rank labels (including species); this could have consequences for the implementation of taxon-based conservation legislation. I examined the principles of PN as embodied in the PhyloCode (an alternative to traditional rank-based nomenclature that names biological groups based on the results of phylogenetic analyses and does not associate taxa with ranks) and assessed how this novel approach to naming taxa might affect the implementation of species-based legislation by providing a case study of the ESA. The latest version of the PhyloCode relies on the traditional rank-based codes to name species and infraspecific taxa; thus, little will change regarding the main targets of the ESA because they will retain rank labels. For this reason, and because knowledge of evolutionary relationships is of greater importance than nomenclatural procedures for initial protection of endangered taxa under the ESA, I conclude that PN under the PhyloCode will have little impact on implementation of the ESA.