We’ve spent some time before discussing the nature of the term ‘species’ and what it means in reality. Of course, answers to questions in biology are always more complicated than we wish they might be, and despite the common nomenclature of the word ‘species’ the underlying definition is convoluted and variable.
Given the strong influence of genetic identity on the process and outcomes of the speciation process, it seems a natural connection to use genetic information to study speciation and species identities. There is a plethora of genetics-based tools we can use to investigate how speciation occurs (both the evolutionary processes and the external influences that drive it). One clear way to test whether two populations of a particular species are actually two different species is to investigate genes related to reproductive isolation: if the genetic differences demonstrate reproductive incompatibilities across the two populations, then there is strong evidence that they are separate species (at least under the Biological Species Concept; see Part One for why!). But this type of analysis requires several tools: 1) knowledge of the specific genes related to reproduction (e.g. formation of sperm and eggs, genital morphology, etc.), 2) the complete and annotated genome of the species (to be able to find and analyse the right genes properly) and 3) a good amount of data for the populations in question. As you can imagine, for people working on non-model species (i.e. ones that haven’t had the same history and detail of research as, say, humans and mice), this can be problematic. So, instead, we can use other genetic information to investigate and suggest patterns and processes related to the formation of new species.
Is reproductive isolation naturally selected for or just a consequence?
A fundamental aspect of studies of speciation is a “chicken or the egg”-type paradigm: does natural selection directly select for rapid reproductive isolation, preventing interbreeding; or as a secondary consequence of general adaptive differences, over a long history of evolution? This might be a confusing distinction, so we’ll dive into it a little more.
The reproductive incompatibility of two populations (thus making them species) is often intrinsically linked to the genetic make-up of those two species. Some conflicts in the genetics of Population 1 and Population 2 may mean that a hybrid having half Population 1 genes and half Population 2 genes will have serious fitness problems (such as sterility or developmental problems). Dramatic genetic differences, particularly a difference in the number of chromosomes between the two sources, is a significant component of reproductive isolation and is usually to blame for sterile hybrids such as ligers, zorse and mules.
We can study the process of speciation in the natural world without focussing on the ‘reproductive isolation’ element of species identity as well. For many species, we are unlikely to have the detail (such as an annotated genome and known functions of genes related to reproduction) required to study speciation at this level in any case. Instead, we might choose to focus on the different factors that are currently influencing the process of speciation, such as how the environmental, demographic or adaptive contexts of populations plays a role in the formation of new species. Many of these questions fall within the domain of phylogeography; particularly, how the historical environment has shaped the diversity of populations and species today.
Although these can help answer some questions related to speciation, new tools are constantly needed to provide a clearer picture of the process. Understanding how and why new species are formed is a critical aspect of understanding the world’s biodiversity. How can we predict if a population will speciate at some point? What environmental factors are most important for driving the formation of new species? How stable are species identities, really? These questions (and many more) remain elusive for a wide variety of life on Earth.