The fly agaric
comprises several cryptic species
, as shown by genetic data.
A species complex is typically considered as a group of close, but distinct species. Obviously, the concept is closely tied to the definition of a species. Modern biology understands a species as "separately evolving metapopulation lineage" but acknowledges that the criteria to delimit species may depend on the group studied. Thus, many species defined traditionally, based only on morphological similarity, have been found to comprise several distinct species when other criteria, such as genetic differentiation or reproductive isolation were applied.
A more restricted use applies the term to close species between which hybridisation occurred or is occurring, leading to intermediate forms and blurred species boundaries. The informal classification, superspecies, can be exemplified by the grizzled skipper butterfly, a superspecies that is further divided into three subspecies.
Some authors apply the term also to a species with intraspecific variability, which might be a sign of ongoing or incipient speciation. Examples are ring species or species with subspecies, where it is often unclear if these should be considered separate species.
Several terms are used synonymously for a species complex, but some of them may also have slightly different, or more narrow meanings. In the nomenclature codes of zoology and bacteriology, no taxonomic ranks are defined at the level between subgenera and species, while the botanical code defines four ranks below genera (section, subsections, series and subseries). Different informal taxonomic solutions have been used to indicate a species complex.
- Cryptic species
- Also physiologic race (uncommon). This describes "distinct species that are erroneously classified (and hidden) under one species name". More generally, the term is often applied when species, even if known to be distinct, cannot be reliably distinguished based on their morphology. The usage physiologic race is not to be confused with physiological race.
- Sibling species
- Also aphanic species. This term, introduced by Ernst Mayr in 1942, was initially used with the same meaning as cryptic species, but later authors emphasized the common phylogenetic origin. A recent article defines sibling species as "cryptic sister species", meaning "two species that are the closest relative of each other and have not been distinguished from one another taxonomically".
- Species flock
- Also species swarm. This refers to "a monophyletic group of closely related species all living in the same ecosystem". Conversely, the term has also been applied very broadly to a group of closely related species than can be variable and widespread.
- Sometimes used as an informal rank for a species complex around one "representative" species. Popularized by Bernhard Rensch and later Ernst Mayr, with the initial requirement that species forming a superspecies must have allopatric distributions. For the component species of a superspecies, allospecies was proposed.
- Species aggregate
- Used for a species complex, especially in plant taxa where polypoidy and apomixis are common. Historical synonyms are species collectiva, introduced by Adolf Engler, conspecies, and grex. Components of a species aggregate have been called segregates or microspecies. Used as abbreviation agg. after the binomial species name.
- Sensu lato
- Meaning "in the broad sense", this Latin phrase is often used after a binomial species name, often abbreviated as s.l., to indicate a species complex represented by that species.