Re: Speciation - how do you know?

Stephen Barnard (
Fri, 06 Sep 1996 15:31:04 -0800

Tim Edwards and/or Marghie Parsons wrote:
> Hi.
> I spotted an article in Newsweek about a Japanese researcher who wants
> to try to fertilize a modern Indian elephant with the frozen sperm of
> a woolly mammoth. (Not anthro, I know, but bear with me). How can he
> know whether mammoth and elephant are similar enough to produce
> fertile offspring? (I suppose, if it works, he will know for sure.)
> In paleoanthropology, how do researchers determine that one creature
> is not the same species as another? Am I correct in my understanding
> that the question is still open vis-a-vis modern humans and
> Neanderthals? Is it pretty much accepted that Homo Erectus was a
> separate species?
> Tim Edwards - interested lay-person

The short answer is that, with respect to extinct species, you don't
really know. Paleontologists make educated guesses based on
morphological features. The most commonly accepted definition of
species is a population of organisms capable of producing fertile
offspring. This criterion will never be established from mere bones,
but pretty good judgements can be made.

Steve Barnard - another interested layman