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The biological definition of species, which works for sexually reproducing organisms, is a group of actually or potentially interbreeding individuals. According to this definition, one species is distinguished from another by the possibility of matings between individuals from each species to produce fertile offspring. There are exceptions to this rule. Many species are similar enough that hybrid offspring are possible and may often occur in nature, but for the majority of species this rule generally holds. In fact, the presence of hybrids between similar species suggests that they may have descended from a single interbreeding species and that the speciation process may not yet be completed.
Given the extraordinary diversity of life on the planet there must be mechanisms for speciation: the formation of two species from one original species. Darwin envisioned this process as a branching event and diagrammed the process in the only illustration found in On the Origin of Species (Figure below). For speciation to occur, two new populations must be formed from one original population, and they must evolve in such a way that it becomes impossible for individuals from the two new populations to interbreed. Biologists have proposed mechanisms by which this could occur that fall into two broad categories. Allopatric speciation, meaning speciation in “other homelands,” involves a geographic separation of populations from a parent species and subsequent evolution. Sympatric speciation, meaning speciation in the “same homeland,” involves speciation occurring within a parent species while remaining in one location.
Biologists think of speciation events as the splitting of one ancestral species into two descendant species. There is no reason why there might not be more than two species formed at one time except that it is less likely and such multiple events can also be conceptualized as single splits occurring close in time.
A geographically continuous population has a gene pool that is relatively homogeneous. Gene flow, the movement of alleles across the range of the species, is relatively free because individuals can move and then mate with individuals in their new location. Thus, the frequency of an allele at one end of a distribution will be similar to the frequency of the allele at the other end. When populations become geographically discontinuous the free-flow of alleles is prevented. When that separation lasts for a period of time, the two populations are able to evolve along different trajectories. Thus, their allele frequencies at numerous genetic loci gradually become more and more different as new alleles independently arise by mutation in each population. Typically, environmental conditions, such as climate, resources, predators, and competitors, for the two populations will differ causing natural selection to favor divergent adaptations in each group. Different histories of genetic drift, enhanced because the populations are smaller than the parent population, will also lead to divergence.
Given enough time, the genetic and phenotypic divergence between populations will likely affect characters that influence reproduction enough that were individuals of the two populations brought together, mating would be less likely, or if a mating occurred, offspring would be non-viable or infertile. Many types of diverging characters may affect the reproductive isolation (inability to interbreed) of the two populations. These mechanisms of reproductive isolation can be divided into prezygotic mechanisms (those that operate before fertilization) and postzygotic mechanisms (those that operate after fertilization). Prezygotic mechanisms include traits that allow the individuals to find each other, such as the timing of mating, sensitivity to pheromones, or choice of mating sites. If individuals are able to encounter each other, character divergence may prevent courtship rituals from leading to a mating either because female preferences have changed or male behaviors have changed. Physiological changes may interfere with successful fertilization if mating is able to occur. Postzygotic mechanisms include genetic incompatibilities that prevent proper development of the offspring, or if the offspring live, they may be unable to produce viable gametes themselves as in the example of the mule, the infertile offspring of a female horse and a male donkey.
If the two isolated populations are brought back together and the hybrid offspring that formed from matings between individuals of the two populations have lower survivorship or reduced fertility, then selection will favor individuals that are able to discriminate between potential mates of their own population and the other population. This selection will enhance the reproductive isolation.
Isolation of populations leading to allopatric speciation can occur in a variety of ways: from a river forming a new branch, erosion forming a new valley, or a group of organisms traveling to a new location without the ability to return, such as seeds floating over the ocean to an island. The nature of the geographic separation necessary to isolate populations depends entirely on the biology of the organism and its potential for dispersal. If two flying insect populations took up residence in separate nearby valleys, chances are that individuals from each population would fly back and forth, continuing gene flow. However, if two rodent populations became divided by the formation of a new lake, continued gene flow would be unlikely; therefore, speciation would be more likely.
Biologists group allopatric processes into two categories. If a few members of a species move to a new geographical area, this is called dispersal. If a natural situation arises to physically divide organisms, this is called vicariance. Scientists have documented numerous cases of allopatric speciation taking place. For example, along the west coast of the United States, two separate subspecies of spotted owls exist. The northern spotted owl has genetic and phenotypic differences from its close relative, the Mexican spotted owl, which lives in the south (Figure below). The cause of their initial separation is not clear, but it may have been caused by the glaciers of the ice age dividing an initial population into two.
In some cases, a population of one species disperses throughout an area, and each finds a distinct niche or isolated habitat. Over time, the varied demands of their new lifestyles lead to multiple speciation events originating from a single species, which is called adaptive radiation. From one point of origin, many adaptations evolve causing the species to radiate into several new ones. Island archipelagos like the Hawaiian Islands provide an ideal context for adaptive radiation events because water surrounds each island, which leads to geographical isolation for many organisms (Figure below). The Hawaiian honeycreeper illustrates one example of adaptive radiation. From a single species, called the founder species, numerous species have evolved, including the eight shown in Figure below.
The honeycreeper birds illustrate adaptive radiation. From one original species of bird, multiple others evolved, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Notice the differences in the species’ beaks in Figure above. Change in the genetic variation for beaks in response to natural selection based on specific food sources in each new habitat led to evolution of a different beak suited to the specific food source. The fruit and seed-eating birds have thicker, stronger beaks which are suited to break hard nuts. The nectar-eating birds have long beaks to dip into flowers to reach their nectar. The insect-eating birds have beaks like swords, appropriate for stabbing and impaling insects. Darwin’s finches are another well-studied example of adaptive radiation in an archipelago.
Speciation without Geographic Separation
One form of sympatric speciation can begin with a chromosomal error during meiosis or the formation of a hybrid individual with too many chromosomes. Sympatric speciation may also take place in other ways. For example, imagine a species of fish that lived in a lake. As the population grew, competition for food also grew. Under pressure to find food, suppose that a group of these fish had the genetic flexibility to discover and feed off another resource that was unused by the other fish. What if this new food source was found at a different depth of the lake? Over time, those feeding on the second food source would interact more with each other than the other fish; therefore they would breed together as well. Offspring of these fish would likely behave as their parents and feed and live in the same area, keeping them separate from the original population. If this group of fish continued to remain separate from the first population, eventually sympatric speciation might occur as more genetic differences accumulated between them.
This scenario does play out in nature, as do others that lead to reproductive isolation. One such place is Lake Victoria in Africa, famous for its sympatric speciation of cichlid fish. Researchers have found hundreds of sympatric speciation events in these fish, which have not only happened in great number, but also over a short period of time. Figure below shows this type of speciation among a cichlid fish population in Nicaragua. In this locale, two types of cichlids live in the same geographic location; however, they have come to have different morphologies that allow them to eat various food sources.