What Is the Meaning of Extreme Phylogenetic Diversity? The Case of Phylogenetic Relict Species

Philippe Grandcolas and Steven A. Trewick

Abstract A relict is a species that remains from a group largely extinct. It can be identified according both to a phylogenetic analysis and to a fossil record of extinction. Conserving a relict species will amount to conserve the unique representative of a particular phylogenetic group and its combination of potentially original characters, thus lots of phylogenetic diversity. However, the focus on these original characters, often seen as archaic or primitive, commonly brought erroneous ideas. Actually, relict species are not necessarily old within their group and they can show as much genetic diversity as any species. A phylogenetic relict species can be geographically or climatically restricted or not. Empirical studies have often shown that relicts are at particular risks of extinction. The term relict should not be used for putting a misleading emphasis on remnant or isolated populations. In conclusion, relict species are extreme cases of phylogenetic diversity, often endangered and with high symbolic value, of important value for conservation.

Keywords Geological extinction • Genetic diversity • Species age • Endemism • Remnant


Why does phylogenetic diversity (or evolutionary distinctiveness) dramatically matter for biodiversity conservation? The answer to this question first posed by Vane-Wright et al. (1991) and Faith (1992) is often illustrated with examples of emblematical and unique species. Such exemplar species that speak to everyone from layperson to scientist, include the Coelacanth fish, the Tuatara squamate, the Kiwi bird, the Platypus mammal, the Ginkgo tree, etc. All these species are said to be relict, because they represent groups that are mostly extinct (Grandcolas et al. 2014). The message is that these species should be cared for, because their extinction would cause a loss of information about distinct sections of life on Earth and their evolution. Generally, this powerful message is naively extended to characterize the place where these species are found, implying that the biota as a whole is a kind of Noah's ark, globally worthy of consideration for conservation biology (see for example, Gibbs 2006 for the case of New Zealand, or Thorne 1999 for Asia).

To our knowledge, everyone agrees with these views and even the most hardhearted companies or governments would difficulty take responsibility for destroying such emblematical “survivors”. The public message in endorsing this destruction would be that they are the fools that spoil unique multimillion year antiques, even worse than to break a Vase de Soissons into thousands of pieces or to lacerate a delicate and wonderfully conserved Da Vinci painting. Even if very consensual, such emotive views about relicts and biodiversity conservation are still often presented informally, which prevent them to be fully scientific, i.e. theoretically justified, measurable and repeatable.

If then we try to set aside the emotional aspects of these views about relicts, what remains for conservation biology as a rational argument? Do relicts actually represent invaluable species for conservation purposes and why? Are they particularly exotic cases that do not account for most situations encountered by land managers or are they extreme cases of common situations? To answer these questions, we need to carefully define relicts with phylogenetic and paleontological tools. The properties of such characterizations need to be explored regarding the most important issues in conservation biology.

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