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31.2: Formation of Species


31.2: Formation of Species

Speciation describes the formation of one or more new species from one or sometimes multiple original species. The resulting species are discrete from the parent species, and barriers to reproduction will typically exist. There are two primary mechanisms, speciation with and without geographic isolation—allopatric and sympatric speciation, respectively.

Allopatric Speciation

In allopatric speciation, gene flow between two populations of the same species is prevented by a geographic barrier, like a mountain range or habitat fragmentation. This is known as vicariance. For example, a drought may cause the water levels in a large lake to drop, leaving two or more smaller bodies of water in which the inhabitants are cut off from one another.

Once in isolation, the individuals in these populations may face different external pressures, such as climate, resource availability or predation. These differences in natural selection combined with genetic drift and mutation over many generations of separation eventually result in the two populations becoming discrete species. This has been observed in lakes containing African cichlid fish, which display a vast array of species, many of which likely evolved due to allopatry.

Dispersal can also produce allopatric speciation. For example, the parasitic sea anemone species Edwardsiella lineata lives on the east coast of North America. It has a closely related sister species, E. carnea, which inhabits the oceans of the Swedish and Norwegian coasts. Dispersal of E. lineata—likely carried in their larval stage as parasites in comb jellies—may have led to the establishment of a new population on the Scandinavian coast. This new and genetically isolated population then diverged over time to become a separate species now known as E. carnea.

Sympatric Speciation

Speciation can also occur without geographic barriers. For example, some crater lakes in Iceland contain multiple novel closely related fish species which almost certainly evolved in sympatry because geographic isolation is impossible due to the shape of their habitat. However, sympatric speciation is arguably harder to achieve. In sympatry, the member species still come into contact with one another and potentially interbreed and exchange genes. Chromosome recombination would likely occur frequently, at least in the beginning of the separation, and break up groups of co-adapted genes needed for the formation of new species. Although less common than allopatric speciation, there are examples of genetic divergence and speciation in sympatry. Changes are driven by factors such as habitat differentiation, sexual selection, and polyploidy, which create barriers to the exchange of genetic information.

Sympatric speciation can occur when subsets of a species evolve to exploit different habitats or resources in the same geographical area. For example, subspecies of the medium ground finch, Geospiza fortis, found on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos show signs of genetic divergence based on beak size. The beak morphology in this species conforms to two different size ideals—small and large—based on the size and hardness of seeds they specialized in consuming (an example of habitat differentiation). However, owing to natural selection, birds with intermediate beak sizes were selected against because they survived at lower rates.

New species may also be created through polyploidy—a mechanism that is relatively common in plants. Usually, this is caused by random errors during cell division resulting in extra sets of chromosomes. The polyploid hybrids thus produced will likely be unable to mate with the diploid parental lines, and instead, produce fertile offspring through self-pollination or by mating with other polyploid hybrids. Therefore, such polyploid speciation can generate new plant species in a single generation. Analyses suggest that 47% to 100% of flowering plant species can be traced back to a polyploidy event at some point in their evolutionary history.

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