Abstract: Species are routinely used as fundamental units of analysis in biogeography, ecology, macroevolution, and conservation biology. A large literature focuses on defining species conceptually, but until recently little attention has been given to the issue of empirically delimiting species. Researchers confronted with the task of delimiting species in nature are often unsure which method(s) is (are) most appropriate for their system and data type collected. Here, we review twelve of these methods organized into two general categories of tree- and nontree-based approaches. We also summarize the relevant biological properties of species amenable to empirical evaluation, the classes of data required, and some of the strengths and limitations of each method. We conclude that all methods will sometimes fail to delimit species boundaries properly or will give conflicting results, and that virtually all methods require researchers to make qualitative judgments. These facts, coupled with the fuzzy nature of species boundaries, require an eclectic approach to delimiting species and caution against the reliance on any single data set or method when delimiting species.
No one definition has as yet satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species.
Sites, JW & JC Marshall. 2004. Operational criteria for delimiting species. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. 35: 199-227.