Island Evolution and Systematic Revision of Comoran Snakes: Why and When Subspecies Still Make Sense

Species delimitation and species concepts have been a matter of debate among biodiversity researchers in the last decades, resulting in integrative taxonomy approaches and the use of modern species concepts, such as the phylogenetic, evolutionary or general lineage species concepts. The discussion of subspecies status and concepts has been addressed much less extensively, with some researchers completely refraining from recognizing subspecies. However, allopatric insular populations that are particularly differentiated have traditionally been assigned subspecies status. We studied the molecular phylogeny and morphology of endemic Comoran tree snakes of the genus Lycodryas. Taking an integrative taxonomic approach, we used the concept of independent lines of evidence to discriminate between evidence for specific and subspecific status. Molecular (mtDNA) and morphological data provided sufficient evidence to support four different taxa within Comoran Lycodryas. In a revision of this group, we propose two species, each with two subspecies. We present a discussion of the strong sexual dichromatism unique to Comoran Lycodryas within the genus and related genera that may be explained by sexual selection in combination with the absence of major predators. Then, we discuss the effects of insular evolution and the “island rule” on morphological traits in Comoran Lycodryas and in Liophidium mayottensis, another snake endemic to the Comoros. The absence of larger-bodied snakes may have promoted an increase in body size and the number of dorsal scale rows in these species. Finally, we discuss the subspecies concept, its applications and its significance for integrative taxonomy and for limiting taxonomic inflation. We emphasize that taxon descriptions should be based on an integrative approach using several lines of evidence, preferably in combination with statements on the underlying species concepts or operational criteria, to increase the objectivity and comparability of descriptions.