Finding evolutionary processes hidden in cryptic species

Cryptic species could represent a substantial fraction of biodiversity. However, inconsistent definitions and taxonomic treatment of cryptic species prevent informed estimates of their contribution to biodiversity and impede our understanding of their evolutionary and ecological significance. We propose a conceptual framework that recognizes cryptic species based on their low levels of phenotypic (morphological) disparity relative to their degree of genetic differentiation and divergence times as compared with non-cryptic species. We discuss how application of a more rigorous definition of cryptic species in taxonomic practice will lead to more accurate estimates of their prevalence in nature, better understanding of their distribution patterns on the tree of life, and increased abilities to resolve the processes underlying their evolution.