Cryptic species diversity: an overlooked factor in environmental management?



  1. Molecular genetic methods continuously uncover cryptic lineages harboured by various species. However, from an applied perspective, it remains unclear whether and to which extent such a genetic diversity affects biological traits (e.g. ecological, behavioural and physiological characteristics) and environmental management.

  2. We assessed potential deviations regarding the trait ‘environmental stress tolerance’ using individuals from five field populations of each of two cryptic lineages (called A and B) comprised under the nominal species Gammarus fossarum. We used ammonia as a chemical stressor while assessing the feeding rate on leaf discs as a measure of sublethal response. In this context, we established a restriction fragment length polymorphism assay to allow a rapid identification of the lineages.

  3. We observed a biologically meaningful and statistically significant twofold higher overall tolerance of one cryptic lineage, lineage B, over the other. Confounding factors that may have the potential to influence the test results, such as life stage, sex, season of collection, parasitism, physiological status of organisms and upstream land-use patterns of the river catchments, were either controlled for or displayed only minor deviations between lineages.

  4. Synthesis and applications. The trait differences observed in the present study seem to be mainly explained by the considerable genetic differentiation between cryptic lineages of one nominal species. Although traits other than tolerance have been minimally investigated in this context, this study indicates implications in the reliability and quality of environmental monitoring and management if cryptic lineage complexes are ignored.