What is a subspecies? Features and examples

The word subspecies is a taxonomic category which, from its name, is understood to be below the species.

While this may seem like a relatively easy taxon to understand, it is really something quite complex, so much so that it is even confused with other labels used in zoology, especially race and variety.

Are there any differences between these three words? Are there any subspecies in the human species? Why so much controversy? We will answer all of these questions below.

    What is a subspecies?

    Generally speaking, a subspecies is a taxonomic category that refers to each of the groups in which a species is found. These groups, in addition to possessing the characteristics of the species in which they are found, have particular morphological characters which make them different from each other.

    The term subspecies is somewhat controversial and difficult to understand without first understanding the concepts of “race” and “variety” in zoology, terms which are sometimes used as synonyms for “subspecies”. From a strictly systematic point of view, this taxon would be halfway between the species and the zoo race or the botanical variety.

    In taxonomy, to designate a subspecies the trinominal nomenclature is used, i.e. formed of three words. The first, which is generic, refers to the taxonomic genus. The second, the specific, refers to the species. And the third, the subspecies, refers to the subspecies in question.

    For example, dogs are a subspecies, called Canis lupus familiaris. Canis lupus is the species, in which dogs and wolves are included, being the “familiar” with regard to the domestic dog. If we were to say Canis lupus lupus, we would be referring to the gray wolf, the most common wolf.

    What are races and varieties?

    As we mentioned, before we delve deeper into what a subspecies is, we need to understand the differences between breed and variety, as these three concepts are very confusing and controversial.

    What they certainly have in common is that they designate a certain type of animal population, always within a species and which is distinguished from the rest of its congeners by a visible morphological characteristic.


    Races are groups into which species are subdivided, taking into account their phenotypic traits, i.e. those that are external. Living things have a genotype, which is the set of instructions and genetic codes that are stored in our DNA, and a phenotype, which is the part of the genotype that manifests itself on the outside. Both are hereditary.

    Races are a biological reality, but they are not taxonomic categories used in zoology. In other words, scientifically speaking, a group of individuals cannot be designated using the breed tag, although they have descriptive value.

    Currently, without departing from the field of zoology applied to non-human animals, the term “breed” is used exclusively for domestic animals.That is why we have spoken of breeds of cows, sheep or dogs, but not breeds of lions, eagles or whales.

    How it is used to refer to domestic species. Its use is usually related to animals that have been artificially selected, that is, their physical characteristics are the result of human intervention. For example, the Friesian cow has large breasts or the sheep have a lot of wool thanks to the fact that farmers select and allow those who meet these characteristics to reproduce. The same goes for hunting dogs and racehorses.

    From all this it is extracted that races involve visible physical characteristics. Each breed has a size, shape, hair color, shape of limbs, height, and other striking aspects that make them stand out from the rest. This is easily seen by comparing a Chihuahua to a Great Dane who, although both of the same species, have very different traits. But no matter how different these dog breeds are, if they are crossed, they will give fertile offspring. They all share the same genetic or phylogenetic profile.


    The term variety is very vague and is often used as a synonym for breed although it is not.. As for the race, it does not constitute a taxonomic category in zoology, but in botany. In the plant world, the word “variety” refers to a taxonomic category below “subspecies” and above “form”.

    Until 1961, the variety was used in the world of zoology with the same meaning as the subspecies. However, it is from this year that the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) will only use the category “subspecies” under “species” and no more.

    At present, and although it is no longer a zoological taxon, the word variety is used in zoology to constitute a population of individuals of a species which differs from other congeners by a single morphological trait. . This is a difference from breed, as breeds involve various morphological traits.

    While the term “breed” is commonly used for pets, the word “variety” is used for wildlife and plants.. Despite this, both terms emphasize the idea that different populations, regardless of race or variety, will always retain the same genetic profile as their reference population, i.e. the species as a whole or the subspecies of that which is extracted.

    We have a case of variety in the case of the black panther. The black panther is not a species or subspecies per se, but a variety of leopard, Has only melanism, a biological condition that causes an excessively pigmented complexion. Panthers and leopards are part of the Panthera pardus species. Panthers and leopards are morphologically identical except that the former are completely black.

    Subspecies and taxonomy: exploring the question

    Understanding the ideas of breed and variety, we went into more detail about the subspecies and why this term is controversial. This is not surprising, as its immediately above category, species, is a much discussed term. While it is already difficult to establish where a species begins and where it ends, this same problem with the subspecies becomes more complicated.. Likewise, unlike variety and race, subspecies is a taxonomic category, such as species, kingdom, family, or class.

    As we mentioned at the beginning, a subspecies is a group of individuals of a species which, in addition to sharing its own characteristics, have in common other morphological characters that distinguish them from other subspecies. or populations. Based on this definition, it may appear that subspecies and race are the same, but they are not. Its fundamental difference is that in the breed the fundamental genetic unity of the species is maintained, while in the subspecies different genetic lines are formed.

    You could say that subspecies are the previous step for the formation of a new species, as long as the right conditions are met. Normally, in the wild, subspecies of the same species do not share territory or overlap.So, they do not interbreed, causing them to evolve separately to a point where they cannot interbreed and have fertile hybrid offspring, considered to be the lineage that shows they are no longer of the same species.

      Do all species have subspecies?

      Not all species have subspecies. There are species, called monotypic, that do not exhibit / display subspecies. That is, they can have races or varieties, but, as we have already said, all the individuals of this species, in addition to showing one or more morphological differences, come from from the same genetic line. An example of this would be the hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus).

      however, the species which have yes subspecies are called polytypical. These have populations with different morphological characteristics and from different genetic lineages. Within these species the first population of this species that has been described is generally known as a nominotypic population. being the one that gives a name to the species as a whole.

      Some examples of polytypical species that we have in Canis lupus, having Canis lupus familiaris and Canis lupus lupus, or Panthera tigris (tiger), having Bengal tiger and Java tiger.

      The controversy with the term subspecies

      We have the controversy over the term subspecies in that, although it is a taxonomic category, the way it was decided that it is a subspecies and this which could be considered a race or a variety was very objective.

      even if At present, the focus is on studying the genetic profile of populationsUntil recently, the way in which one was decided whether one was a subspecies or not was essentially a matter of how different its characteristics were in terms of a nominotypic population.

      It happened that the one who had “discovered” the subspecies was the one who had made the description and highlighted it, without neglecting the subjectivity, traits they considered sufficient indicators that this was a very different population which it had previously been discovered.

      There are many instances of this. For example, in the case of Panthera tigris, until 2017, it was considered that there were up to 9 subspecies of this big feline. However, that same year, and based on the genetic profile, it was established that there were in fact only the two that we discussed previously: the Bengal tiger and the Java tiger. The rest of the old subspecies can be included in one of these two current subspecies, namely varieties.

      What about humans?

      Thanks to paleoanthropological excavations, remains of hominids have been found, which has allowed us to understand where we come from today human beings. These discoveries made it possible to draw the evolutionary tree of humansBut they also sparked unknowns and controversy.

      Until recently, modern humans were considered to lack subspecies. The reason we came to have a trinominal name, Homo sapiens sapiens, was the discovery of Neanderthals, who were considered a subspecies within Homo sapiens.

      however, over time, the idea that Neanderthals were sapiens was discarded, Although it is true that they could cross with the first of our species and have fertile offspring. It’s a real debate, because if they were a different species from ours, how was it possible that they could interbreed with us? In theory, two species are different if their offspring are generally not fertile or able to survive to sexual maturity.

      Although Neanderthals are no longer considered Homo sapiens, bone remains of what is still considered a human subspecies were discovered in the 1990s: Homo sapiens idaltu. If it really is a subspecies and not a human variety human race, the name should be changed to our line Homo sapiens sapiens.

      But all this is not what generates the worst controversy in the case of the scientific study of the human species. What generates a real controversy is whether humans are now subdivided into races..

      It is clear that human beings are not physically homogeneous. If we think of an African person, a person with dark skin, thick lips and very curly hair comes to mind. If, on the other hand, we try to imagine an Asian person, we think of someone with lighter skin, almond-shaped eyes, and dark straight hair. In the case of a white person from northern Europe, we think of someone with very pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes.

      All of these descriptions are very generic and it is clear that within the same breed there is a diversity of morphological traits. However, it is clear that races, in their traditional definition, exist as categories to describe physical traits. We don’t know how many there are and we can’t tell where one “begins” and another “ends”In addition to interbreeding and if two people of different races have an infertile child, it is most likely due to medical issues unrelated to the race of their parents. For many breeds, there is a unity in the genetic lineage in modern humans.

      Despite all this, few consider the acceptance of this to be racist and that there really are no races within the human species. The reason is the history of the scientific study of races, which began in the 19th century and had catastrophic social consequences, Being the cause of racial segregation, eugenics and genocide, although it should be noted that racism was not “invented” during this century.

      The scientific study of races

      One of the most important antecedents of the scientific study of races that we have in Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The publication of this book coincided with the Second Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America.

      The Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries have reached great levels of economic, cultural and social development, changing their way of seeing the world and considering them as superior peoples. White countries they set out to “civilize” others and the right to exploit. It is the emergence of social Darwinism.

      Behind these ideas was justified the colonization of Africa, a continent that the European powers shared like a cake. It would later motivate the creation of segregation laws in the United States and the application of apartheid in South Africa, as well as the launching of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

      Fortunately, after the end of World War II, the population of Western countries has gradually acquired a greater sensitivity to racial injustices. This motivated the scientific study of races to decline in the 1950s, which was positive in ending social Darwinist ideas, but in turn producing the radically opposite and separate effect of biological evidence: no human race has exist.

      Biological aspects vs socio-cultural constructions

      According to the new view, instead of using the word “race”, the term “ethnicity” should be chosen. The first refers to a biological reality, while the second refers to a socio-cultural aspect, which depends on the identity and personal history of each person.

      Ethnicity doesn’t really refer to skin tone or physical characteristics, But to the language, culture, religion, traditions, clothing and identity of the individual.

      For example, a person of African descent who has been adopted by Swedish parents, who speaks Swedish, who feels Swedish, who dresses West, is Lutheran and her name is Anette Bergquist is, without a doubt, a person of Swedish origin. Being of African descent does not prevent her from being Swedish, and her Swedish ethnicity does not make her either more or less black. The two realities are perfectly combinable and no one can tell you that it is less than everything.

      This same idea can be extrapolated to biological sex and gender identity. Sex is biological, determined by X and Y chromosomes. A person with XX chromosomes is female, while a person with XY chromosomes is male. Gender, on the other hand, is a socio-cultural construct and depends on the identity of each individual. Being female, male or non-binary is not something determined by gender, although culturally male-male and female-female pairs predominate.

      A transgender woman is a person whose sex is that of a woman, part of her identity, but her sex will remain male. Being a man does not invalidate your gender identity as a woman, just as being a woman does not invalidate being a man in the case of trans men.

      In both cases, a biological reality should not be taken as a strong argument for discussing one’s own experience and identity. Race and gender are biological aspects, scientifically accessible from the health sciences, while ethnicity and gender are aspects corresponding to the social sciences, aspects which depend on how the personal history of the person individual has been and which constitute his life experience.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Relethford, John (2003). The human species: introduction to biological anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
      • Barrow, MV (1998). A passion for birds: American ornithology according to Audubon. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691044026.
      • Lewis, D. (2012). The Feathered Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300175523.
      • Mayr, E .; Ashlock, PD (1991). Principles of Systematic Zoology (second ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Inc. ISBN 978-0-07-041144-9.

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