Mouse One does not look like Mouse Two, and they have different names, but the gene map says they’re identical, or at least almost identical. How do you square this problem? It can even have policy implications — it’s important to determine whether one distinct-looking species is in fact genetically different than its cousins, because this can affect whether it is listed as threatened or endangered. Take this little guy, for example: The Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.
Found in riverside habitats in eastern Wyoming and the Front Range of Colorado, the tiny rodent has been a flashpoint for almost 13 years, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated it as threatened throughout its entire range. Ranchers, farmers and developers were not pleased, because maintaining its habitat is expensive and disruptive. Things came to a boil after several critics said the Preble’s mouse (named for the man who discovered it in 1899, Edward Preble) is not actually a distinct subspecies, but is genetically the same as other jumping mice found on the high plains.
The FWS, however, maintains that is different enough to warrant protection. Its hind feet are specially adapted for jumping, and a long bi-colored tail. It has been listed and de-listed a few times under the Endangered Species Act, at one point inducing a multi-state dispute when it was considered threatened in Colorado but not in Wyoming. Just this August, the FWS reinstated protection requirements for both states. “The best commercial and scientific information available demonstrates that the Preble's meadow jumping mouse is a valid subspecies and should not be removed from the list of threatened and endangered species based on taxonomic revision,” the FWS said.
Who’s the final arbiter? This is still an ongoing debate, and it’s not limited to the Preble’s mouse. Birds, crocodiles and plants are among several subjects constantly subjected to revision and argument. To improve matters for plants, at least, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK compiled the Plant List, a collection of every species and all the ways they can be categorized. “Without accurate names, understanding and communication about global plant life would descend into inefficient chaos, costing vast sums of money and threatening lives in the case of plants used for food or medicine,” the project says. The first version was done in December 2010.