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Speciation through Geographic Separation

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

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 that 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 11.15). 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. 1

Figure 11.15 The northern spotted owl and the Mexican spotted owl inhabit geographically separate locations with different climates and ecosystems. The owl is an example of incipient speciation. 

Additionally, scientists have found that the further the distance between two groups that once were the same species, the more likely for speciation to take place. This seems logical because as the distance increases, the various environmental factors would likely have less in common than locations in close proximity. Consider the two owls; in the north, the climate is cooler than in the south; the other types of organisms in each ecosystem differ, as do their behaviors and habits; also, the hunting habits and prey choices of the owls in the south vary from the northern ones. These variances can lead to evolved differences in the owls, and over time speciation will likely occur unless gene flow between the populations is restored.

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 11.16). 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 11.16.

Figure 11.16 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 11.16. 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.


Click through this interactive site( see how island birds evolved; click to see images of each species in evolutionary increments from five million years ago to today.