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This is an exploration of contemporary protist taxonomy within an ecological perspective. As it currently stands, the ‘morphospecies’ does not accommodate the information that might support a truly ecological species concept for the protists. But the ‘morphospecies’ is merely a first step in erecting a taxonomy of the protists, and it is expected to become more meaningful in the light of genetic, physiological and ecological research in the near future. One possible way forward lies in the recognition that sexual and asexual protists may all be subject to forces of cohesion that result in (DNA) sequence-similarity clusters. A starting point would then be the detection of ‘ecotypes’–where genotypic and phenotypic clusters correspond; but for that we need better information regarding the extent of clonality in protists, and better characterization of ecological niches and their boundaries. There is some progress with respect to the latter. Using the example of a community of ciliated protozoa living in the stratified water column of a freshwater pond, it is shown to be possible to gauge the potential of protists to partition their local environment into ecological niches. Around 40 morphospecies can coexist in the superimposed water layers, which presumably represent different ecological niches, but we have yet to discover if these are discrete or continuously variable. It is a myth that taxonomic problems are more severe for protists than for animals and plants. Most of the fundamental problems associated with species concepts (e.g. asexuals, sibling species, phenotypic variation) are distributed across biota in general. The recent history of the status of Pfiesteria provides a model example of an integrated approach to solving what are essentially taxonomic problems.
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 Apr 29;359(1444):599-610.