How taxonomic diversity, community structure, and sample size determine the reliability of higher taxon surrogates

Thomas M. Neeson, Itai Van Rijn, Yael Mandelik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Ecologists and paleontologists often rely on higher taxon surrogates instead of complete inventories of biological diversity. Despite their intrinsic appeal, the performance of these surrogates has been markedly inconsistent across empirical studies, to the extent that there is no consensus on appropriate taxonomic resolution (i.e., whether genus- or family-level categories are more appropriate) or their overall usefulness. A framework linking the reliability of higher taxon surrogates to biogeographic setting would allow for the interpretation of previously published work and provide some needed guidance regarding the actual application of these surrogates in biodiversity assessments, conservation planning, and the interpretation of the fossil record. We developed a mathematical model to show how taxonomic diversity, community structure, and sampling effort together affect three measures of higher taxon performance: the correlation between species and higher taxon richness, the relative shapes and asymptotes of species and higher taxon accumulation curves, and the efficiency of higher taxa in a complementarity- based reserve-selection algorithm. In our model, higher taxon surrogates performed well in communities in which a few common species were most abundant, and less well in communities with many equally abundant species. Furthermore, higher taxon surrogates performed well when there was a small mean and variance in the number of species per higher taxa. We also show that empirically measured species-higher-taxon correlations can be partly spurious (i.e., a mathematical artifact), except when the species accumulation curve has reached an asymptote. This particular result is of considerable practical interest given the widespread use of rapid survey methods in biodiversity assessment and the application of higher taxon methods to taxa in which species accumulation curves rarely reach an asymptote, e.g., insects.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1216-1225
Number of pages10
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2013


  • Biodiversity assessment
  • Complementarity
  • Conservation planning
  • Higher taxa
  • Surrogate
  • Taxonomic sufficiency


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