Islands of speciation and speciation on islands

The concept of a species

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.

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Genes in parallel

Adaptation from genetic variation

One of the central themes of this blog, and indeed of evolutionary biology as a whole, is the notion that adaptation is often underpinned by genes. Genetic variation acts as the basis for natural selection to favour or disfavour traits: while this is directly through phenotypic traits (e.g. fur colour, morphology, behaviour), these traits are typically determined by a genetic component. In the early stages of adaptation, evolution can often be observed by changes in the frequency of genetic variants (alleles) within a species or population over time as natural selection acts, gradually leading to the observable (and sometimes dramatic) change in species over time.

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Changing the (water)course of history

The structure of a river system

For anyone who has had to study geography at some point in their education, you’d likely be familiar with the idea of river courses drawn on a map. They’re so important, in fact, that they are often the delimiting factor in the edges of countries, states or other political units. Water is a fundamental requirement of all forms of life and the riverways that scatter the globe underpin the maintenance, structure and accumulation of a large swathe of biodiversity.

So, what is a river?

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The space for species: how spatial aspects influence speciation

Spatial and temporal factors of speciation

The processes driving genetic differentiation, and the progressive development of populations along the speciation continuum, are complex in nature and influenced by a number of factors. Generally, on The G-CAT we have considered the temporal aspects of these factors: how time much time is needed for genetic differentiation, how this might not be consistent across different populations or taxa, and how a history of environmental changes affect the evolution of populations and species. We’ve also touched on the spatial aspects of speciation and genetic differentiation before, but in significantly less detail.

To expand on this, we’re going to look at a few different models of how the spatial distribution of populations influences their divergence, and particularly how these factor into different processes of speciation.

What comes first, ecological or genetic divergence?

One key paradigm in understanding speciation is somewhat an analogy to the “chicken and the egg scenario”, albeit with ecological vs. genetic divergence. This concept is based on the idea that two aspects are key for determining the formation of new species: genetic differentiation of the populations in question, and ecological (or adaptive) changes that provide new ecological niches for species to inhabit. Without both, we might have new morphotypes or ecotypes of a singular species (in the case of ecological divergence without strong genetic divergence) or cryptic species (genetically distinct but ecologically identical species).

The order of these two processes have been in debate for some time, and different aspects of species and the environment can influence how (or if) these processes occur.

Different spatial models of speciation

Generally, when we consider the spatial models for speciation we divide these into distinct categories based on the physical distance of populations from one another. Although there is naturally a lot of grey area (as there is with almost everything in biological science), these broad concepts help us to define and determine how speciation is occurring in the wild.

Allopatric speciation

The simplest model is one we have described before called “allopatry”. In allopatry, populations are distributed distantly from one another, so that there are separated and isolated. A common way to imagine this is islands of populations separated by ocean of unsuitable habitat.

Allopatric speciation is considered one of the simplest and oldest models of speciation as the process is relatively straightforward. Geographic isolation of populations separates them from one another, meaning that gene flow is completely stopped and each population can evolve independently. Small changes in the genes of each population over time (e.g. due to different natural selection pressures) cause these populations to gradually diverge: eventually, this divergence will reach a point where the two populations would not be compatible (i.e. are reproductively isolated) and thus considered separate species.

The standard model of allopatric speciation, following an island model. 1) We start with a single population occupying a single island.  2) A rare dispersal event pushes some individuals onto a new island, forming a second population. Note that this doesn’t happen often enough to allow for consistent gene flow (i.e. the island was only colonised once). 3) Over time, these populations may accumulate independent genetic and ecological changes due to both natural selection and drift, and when they become so different that they are reproductively isolated they can be considered separate species.

Although relatively straightforward, one complex issue of allopatric speciation is providing evidence that hybridisation couldn’t happen if they reconnected, or if populations could be considered separate species if they could hybridise, but only under forced conditions (i.e. it is highly unlikely that the two ‘species’ would interact outside of experimental conditions).

Parapatric and peripatric speciation

A step closer in bringing populations geographically together in speciation is “parapatry” and “peripatry”. Parapatric populations are often geographically close together but not overlapping: generally, the edges of their distributions are touching but do not overlap one another. A good analogy would be to think of countries that share a common border. Parapatry can occur when a species is distributed across a broad area, but some form of narrow barrier cleaves the distribution in two: this can be the case across particular environmental gradients where two extremes are preferred over the middle.

The main difference between paraptry and allopatry is the allowance of a ‘hybrid zone’. This is the region between the two populations which may not be a complete isolating barrier (unlike the space between allopatric populations). The strength of the barrier (and thus the amount of hybridisation and gene flow across the two populations) is often determined by the strength of the selective pressure (e.g. how unfit hybrids are). Paraptry is expected to reduce the rate and likelihood of speciation occurring as some (even if reduced) gene flow across populations is reduces the amount of genetic differentiation between those populations: however, speciation can still occur.

Parapatric speciation across a thermocline.jpg
An example of parapatric species across an environment gradient (in this case, a temperature gradient along the ocean coastline). Left: We have two main species (red and green fish) which are adapted to either hotter or colder temperatures (red and green in the gradient), respectively. A small zone of overlap exists where hybrid fish (yellow) occur due to intermediate temperature. Right: How the temperature varies across the system, forming a steep gradient between hot and cold waters.

Related to this are peripatric populations. This differs from parapatry only slightly in that one population is an original ‘source’ population and the other is a ‘peripheral’ population. This can happen from a new population becoming founded from the source by a rare dispersal event, generating a new (but isolated) population which may diverge independently of the source. Alternatively, peripatric populations can be formed when the broad, original distribution of the species is reduced during a population contraction, and a remnant piece of the distribution becomes fragmented and ‘left behind’ in the process, isolated from the main body. Speciation can occur following similar processes of allopatric speciation if gene flow is entirely interrupted or paraptric if it is significantly reduced but still present.

Peripatric distributions.jpg
The two main ways peripatric species can form. Left: The dispersal method. In this example, there is a central ‘source’ population (orange birds on the main island), which holds most of the distribution. However, occasionally (more frequently than in the allopatric example above) birds can disperse over to the smaller island, forming a (mostly) independent secondary population. If the gene flow between this population and the central population doesn’t overwhelm the divergence between the two populations (due to selection and drift), then a new species (blue birds) can form despite the gene flow. Right: The range contraction method. In this example, we start with a single widespread population (blue lizards) which has a rapid reduction in its range. However, during this contraction one population is separated from the main body (i.e. as a refugia), which may also be a precursor of peripatric speciation.

Sympatric (ecological) speciation

On the other end of the distribution spectrum, the two diverging populations undergoing speciation may actually have completely overlapping distributions. In this case, we refer to these populations as “sympatric”, and the possibility of sympatric speciation has been a highly debated topic in evolutionary biology for some time. One central argument rears its head against the possibility of sympatric speciation, in that if populations are co-occurring but not yet independent species, then gene flow should (theoretically) occur across the populations and prevent divergence.

It is in sympatric speciation that we see the opposite order of ecological and genetic divergence happen. Because of this, the process is often referred to as “ecological speciation”, where individual populations adapt to different niches within the same area, isolating themselves from one another by limiting their occurrence and tolerances. As the two populations are restricted from one another by some kind of ecological constraint, they genetically diverge over time and speciation can occur.

This can be tricky to visualise, so let’s invent an example. Say we have a tropical island, which is occupied by one bird species. This bird prefers to eat the large native fruit of the island, although there is another fruit tree which produces smaller fruits. However, there’s only so much space and eventually there are too many birds for the number of large fruit trees available. So, some birds are pushed to eat the smaller fruit, and adapt to a different diet, changing physiology over time to better acquire their new food and obtain nutrients. This shift in ecological niche causes the two populations to become genetically separated as small-fruit-eating-birds interact more with other small-fruit-eating-birds than large-fruit-eating-birds. Over time, these divergences in genetics and ecology causes the two populations to form reproductively isolated species despite occupying the same island.

Ecological sympatric speciation
A diagram of the ecological speciation example given above. Note that ecological divergence occurs first, with some birds of the original species shifting to the new food source (‘ecological niche’) which then leads to speciation. An important requirement for this is that gene flow is somehow (even if not totally) impeded by the ecological divergence: this could be due to birds preferring to mate exclusively with other birds that share the same food type; different breeding seasons associated with food resources; or other isolating mechanisms.

Although this might sound like a simplified example (and it is, no doubt) of sympatric speciation, it’s a basic summary of how we ended up with so many species of Darwin’s finches (and why they are a great model for the process of evolution by natural selection).

The complexity of speciation

As you can see, the processes and context driving speciation are complex to unravel and many factors play a role in the transition from population to species. Understanding the factors that drive the formation of new species is critical to understanding not just how evolution works, but also in how new diversity is generated and maintained across the globe (and how that might change in the future).


You’re perfect, you’re beautiful, you look like a model (species)

What is a ‘model’?

There are quite literally millions of species on Earth, ranging from the smallest of microbes to the largest of mammals. In fact, there are so many that we don’t actually have a good count on the sheer number of species and can only estimate it based on the species we actually know about. Unsurprisingly, then, the number of species vastly outweighs the number of people that research them, especially considering the sheer volumes of different aspects of species, evolution, conservation and their changes we could possibly study.

Species on Earth estimate figure
Some estimations on the number of eukaryotic species (i.e. not including things like bacteria), with the number of known species in blue and the predicted number of total species on Earth in purpleSource: Census of Marine Life.

This is partly where the concept of a ‘model’ comes into it: it’s much easier to pick a particular species to study as a target, and use the information from it to apply to other scenarios. Most people would be familiar with the concept based on medical research: the ‘lab rat’ (or mouse). The common house mouse (Mus musculus) and the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) are some of the most widely used models for understanding the impact of particular biochemical compounds on physiology and are often used as the testing phase of medical developments before human trials.

So, why are mice used as a ‘model’? What actually constitutes a ‘model’, rather than just a ‘relatively-well-research-species’? Well, there are a number of traits that might make certain species ideal subjects for understanding key concepts in evolution, biology, medicine and ecology. For example, mice are often used in medical research given their (relative) similar genetic, physiological and behavioural characteristics to humans. They’re also relatively short-lived and readily breed, making them ideal to observe the more long-term effects of medical drugs or intergenerational impacts. Other species used as models primarily in medicine include nematodes (Caenorhabditis elegans), pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus), and guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus).

The diversity of models

There are a wide variety and number of different model species, based on the type of research most relevant to them (and how well it can be applied to other species). Even with evolution and conservation-based research, which can often focus on more obscure or cryptic species, there are several key species that have widely been applied as models for our understanding of the evolutionary process. Let’s take a look at a few examples for evolution and conservation.


It would be remiss of me to not mention one of the most significant contributors to our understanding of the genetic underpinning of adaptation and speciation, the humble fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster, among other species). The ability to rapidly produce new generations (with large numbers of offspring with very short generation time), small fully-sequenced genome, and physiological variation means that observing both phenotypic and genotypic changes over generations due to ‘natural’ (or ‘experimental’) selection are possible. In fact, Drosphilia spp. were key in demonstrating the formation of a new species under laboratory conditions, providing empirical evidence for the process of natural selection leading to speciation (despite some creationist claims that this has never happened).

Drosophila speciation experiment
A simplified summary of the speciation experiment in Drosophila, starting with a single species and resulting in two reproductively isolated species based on mating and food preference. Source: Ilmari Karonen, adapted from here.

Darwin’s finches

The original model of evolution could be argued to be Darwin’s finches, as the formed part of the empirical basis of Charles Darwin’s work on the theory of evolution by natural selection. This is because the different species demonstrate very distinct and obvious changes in morphology related to a particular diet (e.g. the physiological consequences of natural selection), spread across an archipelago in a clear demonstration of a natural experiment. Thus, they remain the original example of adaptive radiation and are fundamental components of the theory of evolution by natural selection. However, surprisingly, Darwin’s finches are somewhat overshadowed in modern research by other species in terms of the amount of available data.

Darwin's finches drawings
Some of Darwin’s early drawings of the morphological differences in Galapagos finch beaks, which lead to the formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Zebra finches

Even as far as birds go, one species clearly outshines the rest in terms of research. The zebra finch is one of the most highly researched vertebrate species, particularly as a model of song learning and behaviour in birds but also as a genetic model. The full genome of the zebra finch was the second bird to ever be sequenced (the first being a chicken), and remains one of the more detailed and annotated genomes in birds. Because of this, the zebra finch genome is often used as a reference for other studies on the genetics of bird species, especially when trying to understand the function of genetic changes or genes under selection.

Zebra finches.jpg
A pair of (very cute) model zebra finches. Source: Michael Lawton via



Fish are (perhaps surprisingly) also relatively well research in terms of evolutionary studies, largely due to their ancient origins and highly diverse nature, with many different species across the globe. They also often demonstrate very rapid and strong bouts of divergence, such as the cichlid fish species of African lakes which demonstrate how new species can rapidly form when introduced to new and variable environments. The cichlids have become the poster child of adaptive radiation in fishes much in the same way that Darwin’s finches highlighted this trend in birds. Another group of fish species used as a model for similar aspects of speciation, adaptive divergence and rapid evolutionary change are the three-spine and nine-spine stickleback species, which inhabit a variety of marine, estuarine and freshwater environments. Thus, studies on the genetic changes across these different morphotypes is a key in understanding how adaptation to new environments occur in nature (particularly the relatively common transition into different water types in fishes).

cichlid diversity figure
The sheer diversity of species and form makes African cichlids an ideal model for testing hypotheses and theories about the process of evolution and adaptive radiation. Figure sourced from Brawand et al. (2014) in Nature.

Zebra fish

More similar to the medical context of lab rats is the zebrafish (ironically, zebra themselves are not considered a model species). Zebrafish are often used as models for understanding embryology and the development of the body in early formation given the rapid speed at which embryonic development occurs and the transparent body of embryos (which makes it easier to detect morphological changes during embryogenesis).

Zebrafish embryo
The transparent nature of zebrafish embryos make them ideal for studying the development of organisms in early stages. Source:

Using information from model species for non-models

While the relevance of information collected from model species to other non-model species depends on the similarity in traits of the two species, our understanding of broad concepts such as evolutionary process, biochemical pathways and physiological developments have significantly improved due to model species. Applying theories and concepts from better understood organisms to less researched ones allows us to produce better research much faster by cutting out some of the initial investigative work on the underlying processes. Thus, model species remain fundamental to medical advancement and evolutionary theory.

That said, in an ideal world all species would have the same level of research and resources as our model species. In this sense, we must continue to strive to understand and research the diversity of life on Earth, to better understand the world in which we live. Full genomes are progressively being sequenced for more and more species, and there are a number of excellent projects that are aiming to sequence at least one genome for all species of different taxonomic groups (e.g. birds, bats, fish). As the data improves for our non-model species, our understanding of evolution, conservation management and medical research will similarly improve.