Do we have a starting point?

Hi Jon

At the risk of evoking howls of derision from your more dedicated followers, can you explain why exactly you only include mammals on your life list at full species level?

A few of the recent posts have interested me in terms of you mentioning adding or subtracting mammals from your list as various species are split or condensed and I cannot really understand why you would use only the full species list when it is changes constantly and is so obviously flawed.

The starting point for your lifelong passion can never be entirely accurate, as some orders and families are more or less overlooked whilst others have been split to an incomprehensible level….I can only presume that it is far easier to secure a research grant to study primates than almost any other mammal!

Why would you submit to the slings and arrows of outrageous taxonomy, when, even at a genetic level, it is very difficult to get two sources to completely concur?

You mentioned legitimacy on one of your recent posts, but there is never going to be a definitive list of mammals at full species level, as the task is clearly beyond both human endeavor and agreement.

As I run wildlife trips, I count and record the mammals that I see on each trip, just to give guests an idea of what they might see, but I do not have a life list and have no idea how many mammals I have been fortunate enough to encounter over the 25 years that I have actively looked for them. However, if I did, the last thing that I would want is to have to change it constantly or to remove mammals, simply because an academic fancies another couple of years in the Amazon and suddenly thinks there may be a case for splitting the night monkey for the umpteenth time!

For those of us who watch wildlife all over the world, it is clear that very little is still known about dozens of species and lots of examples come to mind in terms of animals that it is hard to justify can be classified as a single species. Killer whales, Asiatic and African lions, Eurasian and African wildcats are some of the more obvious examples, but there are many more and the differences between animals on even a regional basis can be extreme…..has anyone seen the mule deer on Vancouver Island and compared them to those on the mainland?

I appreciate that in the field it is often going to be difficult to identify certain subspecies, but, in many cases it is obvious and I am interested to know why you do not use the subspecies level as your starting point, as you could still record each at full species level, but would not have to add or remove mammals as additional classifications come and go and one theory is replaced with another.

Personally it would infuriate me and I would appreciate your view on this and the full species level in general, as it currently stands.



  1. Profile photo of vdinets
    vdinets 6 years ago

    I do keep track of subspecies. The problem is, intraspecific systematics of many mammalian species are a total mess and badly in need of revision. Also, for many species it is all but impossible to find a list of described subspecies. For birds you can use HMW as a reference (they did a lot of revision work), but, unfortunately, HMW is not up to the same standard and generally can’t be trusted.

    • Profile photo of morganchurchill
      morganchurchill 6 years ago

      Sadly true. Subspecies as a concept in taxonomy is poorly defined, and although there have been some movement in getting a more stable definition, it’s still largely a mess. And taxonomic treatments never really took subspecies as seriously as species, so you get so many dubious subspecies that it is virtually useless to keep track of them.

      And sadly…mammalian taxonomy is at times appears to be a dead field. While molecular phylogenetics has led to a huge renaissance in studies in birds and herps, there hasn’t been as much focus paid to mammals, and the works that have been done haven’t really led to changes in taxonomic treatments, or lack the rigor of bird studies.

  2. Profile photo of vdinets
    vdinets 6 years ago

    I meant, for birds you can use HBW, obviously 🙂

  3. Don Roberson 6 years ago

    A short answer is that I equate listing mammals with listing birds, and I’ve been listing birds since I was a child. I like the parity of thinking of my mammal life list in the same paradigm as my bird life list. In birds, the species is the most fundamental and basic element of evolution, particularly if one uses the Biological Species Concept, as I do. While it is fair to say that research is on-going and the list of bird species is ‘ever-changing’ and will never ever have a ‘final’ list, it is mostly picking at the edges. There are about 10,000 bird species in the world, and that number grows only by a comparative tiny percentage annual with lumps/splits and discovery of unknown taxa.

    I am very interested in subspecies as well, and in birds there are immediately available sources of updated lists of all the subspecies of the world — I prefer the Clements/eBird list, but there are several others — and it is fair to say that there is much more debate and what is or is not a subspecies in birds than there is about what is or is not a species.

    The problem with subspecies is that many named taxa are simply points on a continuous cline (darker to paler, redder to browner to grayer, smaller to larger) and many are not field-identifiable. The Clements/eBird list provides very helpful lists of “Groups” (field-identifiable sets of subspecies), but acceptable subspecies are constantly subject to re-review. Newly imposed rules (e.g., 80% rule) have caused major changes in accepted subspecies in common birds. What is said for birds is true for mammals — just that the mammal literature is not as extensive or accessible in many cases.

    And perhaps most important for me is the historic vitality of whatever numbers are on one’s list. One can say in round figures there are 10,000 species of acceptable birds today, and that number changes only a very small percentage annually with splits, lumps and new discoveries. But there are about 20,000 to 21,000 subspecies currently accepted. If I “counted” subspecies as my primary lifelist total, a monotypic but exceptionally unique bird would be “worth less” that a bunch of the 30 or so Song Sparrows. I am focused on the special, the unique, the exceptional! I consider those the most important birds and/or mammals. I don’t want someone counting 40 subspecies of Norway rat [hyperbole… I don’t know if the rat has subpsecies offhand… just bear with me] and thinking that is much better (40 times better than) one Polar Bear or one Numbat or one Giant Armadillo. It is a terrible type of “grade inflation.” If everyone gets “As”, what the bother of keeping grades or scores?

    • morganchurchill 6 years ago

      I agree with most of what Don says above. I am a birder as well, and my bird list is definitely better than my mammal list. My listing in mammals (or herps for that matter) is driven by my experience in birding culture, which emphasizes recognition of species.

      That said, I do keep track of taxonomy in the groups I am interested, and try to keep track of potential splits and lumps for all groups I list, keeping them in a separate document. Since mammal taxonomy is largely neglected, I have no problem also adding splitting taxa not currently split by HMW or MSW 3rd edition (only mammals though). I find taxonomy endlessly fascinating, and have professionally published papers on the subject, so I admit I might be wierd or atypical of mammal fans.

  4. Floyd E. Hayes 6 years ago

    Don, your reply is excellent!

  5. Profile photo of Jon Hall
    Jon Hall 6 years ago

    I agree with Don too.

    Perhaps an important first question (for me to ask myself) is why do I keep a list at all? And I guess first and foremost it is a metric for me to track my own personal progress in finding and watching mammals. Now there are many ways in which I could track that progress: hours spent looking, countries visited, animals sighted etc. But like many people I will look at a measure of diversity of animals seen, and, like Don, the species level as the unit of analysis seems most natural to me. And though I haven’t done the maths I suspect that if I looked I might find that I’ve seen about 20 -25% of the world’s species, and 20-25% of the species and subspecies too. So that might not matter too much when choosing to measure my progress.

    But while the species level might be a way to track my progress, that is not the same as saying that I get as much excitement from ticking off a new mus species as I would get from seeing a new felid, for example. Both may put me one step further along the road, but the latter will be a much happier step. So my list is just an indicator of progress, but not the be all and end all. And, as we statisticians say, indicators make good servants but bad masters.

    Of course its also interesting for me to compare the numbers I have seen with other people, but I find it more interesting to look at WHAT other people have seen, so having a consistent list, and common starting point that we all work from, isn’t all that important to me.

    Nor do I get frustrated when species come and go. I find it quite interesting. Plus its fun to have a reason to remember certain sightings. Having said that, I don’t really have time to keep up to date with changes in species let alone subspecies (even though I also try to keep a record of those that I have seen).

    Taxonomy has many useful purposes, but organising my life list isn’t one of them! But if I was to change my measurement metrics I’d be more inclined to go broader rather than narrower and perhaps focus more on seeing every genus.


  6. Profile photo of tomeslice
    tomeslice 6 years ago

    Yep. Even though species may combine and split periodically, it’s really cool to see a diversity of animals. The list is not for winning an oscar, it’s for self-satisfaction, and a reminder of all the species you’ve seen, or cared to record. Once you’ve seen a Jaguar and thought “That’s SO AWESOME,” seeing another subspecies of a Jaguar sounds less appealing (at least for me) than seeing a Margay, and then an Oncilla.
    Essentially, kind of like Don described with the differences between bird subspecies, is the superficial appearance of the animal that is attractive, and the experience of seeing it in its natural habitat; not so much the taxonomic detail.
    Many of us are inspired when we’re kids by all the nature documentaries on TV, and want to experience the animal world first-hand. So we go out and look for animals: mammals, birds and other cool stuff. So the concentration is on diversity. If on the same trip you saw a bear, a tapir, a tiger, an orangutan, a marten, a tarsier, some monkeys, a binturong and another small-to-medium sized felid – BOOM. How freaking awesome! If you managed to see this many different animals on one trip, it almost wouldn’t matter if the additional cat was a marbled cat rather a flat-headed cat, let alone which subspecies. (Unless of course you had already seen one of them before). It’s the diversity of animals that live in the mysterious rain forest. The diversity of animals that are present, and yet most “regular” tourists never see. It’s the fact that you REALLY experienced nature at its best, and your adventure was no less rewarding than those National Geographic shows you saw.

    That’s how I see it, in my most non-scientific explanation of why seeing wild animals is one of my favorite activities. In fact, I think if all animals were as easy to find as zebras and wildebeests on the open savannah, mammal watching wouldn’t seem as cool.

  7. Profile photo of jasonwoolgar Author
    jasonwoolgar 6 years ago

    Thanks guys, interesting answers and I agree with much of what Don has written as well, except with mammals the differences between subspecies can go much further than colour or size variations.

    I had already considered the effort and will involved in seeing several subspecies of rodent, but that was not primarily my point, as I am not at all interested in numbers or any final tally. Like Don, and I guess like a lot of other mammal watchers, I am also interested in the exceptional, which is why I find it so hard to ignore subspecies and had initially been surprised that the species level list, such as it is, appeared to dominate recent discussions.

    Although I really enjoy seeing all mammals, and a new species is always a thrill regardless of the size or type, the anomaly in terms of only maintaining a full species list, is that a lot of the subspecies are actually far more impressive.

    There are so many examples of this, but just imagine never visiting the Valdes Peninsula to watch a killer whale beaching to hunt sea lions, just because you have already seen another subspecies of killer whale chasing salmon off Vancouver, or not visiting Gujarat to see the last surviving Asiatic lions because you have already seen lions in Africa.

    By including subspecies we are actually refusing to exclude an entire range of magnificent mammals that we would have no reason to see if the list, which I believe most people accept is always going to be hopelessly flawed, is the be all and end all of what we do.

    Personally, I would rather see a wolf in India, having already seen various subspecies across North America and Europe, than I would another new species of rice rat, although the former would make absolutely no impression on the species level list and the latter would.

    Perhaps therefore the issue has nothing to do with a preference regarding a full species list or a subspecies list, maybe the actual issue is whether to maintain a list at all, which I appreciate is very much a personal choice, but which I also cannot help thinking must involve at least a degree of the tail wagging the dog.

    It is a very human trait to want to record everything, but does a life list assist or partially cloud what we do, as I notice that some of the visitors to this site trap animals simply in order to record them on their list? Apart from the fact that this is incredibly invasive, is this not a case of the list taking over to some degree, as how can a trapped or caged animal ever be classified as a valid wild sighting?

    I guess that is another issue entirely, but thanks for all of the interesting comments and happy mammal watching!


  8. Mike Richardson 6 years ago

    Hi Jason

    As someone who doesn’t maintain a list, you make a lot of assumptions about those that do. I can only speak for myself but just because I like to keep a record of the mammal species I have seen around the world does not mean I am less interested in seeing any of the additional subspecies of a particular animal. For example I have seen lots of African Lions but I will still make an effort to see the Asiatic Lions when I get the chance.

    Furthermore, I spend a lot of time looking for/watching species (and subspecies) I have seen many times before. I’ve observed countless Badgers in the UK but I still very much enjoy seeing them. It’s not all about the list!

    Secondly I am as interested in seeing small rodents, shrews and bats *almost* as much as I am watching big cats and cetaceans. The fact they can be difficult to find and ID adds to the challenge. I certainly don’t consider them ‘list fodder.’

    Keeping a list is a personal choice but we all like seeing new mammals. The fact some of us like to record what we see doesn’t make us any different in our appreciation for nature than those that do not keep lists.

  9. Profile photo of jasonwoolgar Author
    jasonwoolgar 6 years ago

    Hi Mike

    If they were assumptions, they were very general ones and were not based on any single response or individual. I was initially more interested to know why the people who do like to record their sightings, do not record everything and therefore open up far more opportunities whilst they are in the field.

    All of the responses were of interest and your last point is a given, as of course maintaining a list does not equate to any lack of appreciation for nature and it was certainly not my intention to imply otherwise.

    Although, having said that, I did once spend a fairly uncomfortable couple of hours with a birder, who appeared to believe that 10 minutes with the jaguar we had seen was more than sufficient and that ‘maybe we should move on now’. Now he, I would suggest, was probably a borderline case in terms of wildlife appreciation!!


    • Mike Richardson 6 years ago

      Only I0 minutes with a Jaguar?! I guess having to spend time with people like that is one of the downsides of running wildlife tours.

      Kind regards


  10. Israel 6 years ago

    speaking purely in terms of lists, for myself I keep a life list (arranged in the order I see the species), a taxonomic list, country lists, and year lists. The taxonomic list includes subspecies because (especially in birds) it makes it easier to see what you have or haven’t seen when splits/lumps happen. I have a lot of trouble keeping subspecies for mammals because it is hard to find information on what subspecies are valid or even which subspecies are found where!

    For mammals, because I see fewer mammals than birds (!), on the taxonomic list I actually include all sightings (a basic date, locality, country).

    The reason I list is not just to keep track of what I’ve seen, but because looking at an animal’s data on the list immediately brings back to my mind seeing that animal!

    And like someone said above about badgers, it’s not about the list (for me). I like adding new species to the lists and that is a basic “reason” for going new places, but really I just like getting out there and seeing the animals. I can sit and watch a platypus for ages, even though I’ve seen them before. I’m not going to go, “huh, platypus, seen it” and then walk off.

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