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On the California gnatcatcher and development

To the editor: As the senior authors of the paper on the California gnatcatcher denigrated by Occidental College biologist John McCormack, we wish to make clear that, contrary to his implications, no one other than the authors had any say in the analyses, interpretation or writing of the paper. We stand behind our peer-reviewed conclusion, published in the top-ranking American ornithological journal, that the California population of gnatcatcher does not represent a genetically distinct subspecies. ("The shoddy science behind developers' push to delist the California gnatcatcher," July 2)

McCormick invokes argument from authority in his defense of subspecies status for this charismatic bird. Apparently he knows of a "magic bullet" technique that will verify the subspecies where prior attempts using plumage, size and shape, mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA have all failed.

McCormack fails to mention the larger issue: the exploitation of the subspecies category for political, rather than scientific, purposes. We support environmentalists' wishes to preserve tracts of coastal-sage scrub, but they have alternatives to using shoddy taxonom.

Robert Zink, St. Paul, Minn.

George Barrowclough, New York

Zink is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota; Barrowclough is the associate curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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