Taxonomy for birders: A beginner's guide to DNA and species problems

Norman Maclean*, Martin Collinson, Richard G. Newell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


The use of molecular data has revolutionised taxonomy. As a result, there is upheaval within national and regional bird lists, with new species splits and lumps and, perhaps more disruptively, alterations to the sequence in which families and species are listed. These changes, sometimes based on esoteric genetic or mathematical data, affect ornithologists and birders. In this paper, some of the basics of modern taxonomic practice are explained, and we show how these principles may be applied to genetic data to generate molecular phylogenies. Examples are used to illustrate how genetic data may resolve complex taxonomic problems, and also to show some of the reasons why DNA does not offer a simple resolution to the 'species problem'. There are no simple rules to determine species boundaries, and the use of molecular data does not yet change this. There are cases where different DNA sequences tell different stories, which can be different again from phylogenies based on morphological data.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)512-537
Number of pages26
JournalBritish Birds
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2005


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