Biologists interested in the origins of species diversity frequently focus on the phenomenon of adaptive radiation, the process by which a single species rapidly gives rise to many new species, each with different traits adapted to different lifestyles. Darwin's finches, with their beaks shaped to suit to different foods [$a], are a classic case; the Anolis lizards of the Caribbean, which have repeatedly evolved into a handful of "ecomorphs" with different body sizes and shapes adapted to different perching locations [PDF], are another.
The two most influential theories of adaptive radiation—by G.G. Simpson and Dolph Schluter—have suggested that it results when a species encounters ecological opportunity. Ecological opportunity might be a newly-evolved trait, or a new habitat, or the extinction of a species' competitors or predators. For instance, a butterfly might evolve a way to overcome the chemical defenses of an abundant plant species, or a plant introduced by humans to a new habitat might find that local pathogens aren't as deadly to it as the ones in its native range. Ecological opportunities have the effect of granting access to new resources. We have pretty good evidence that this can allow individual populations to increase in number, and even evolve greater diversity—but is that enough to spur the rapid speciation that forms adaptive radiation?
Ecological opportunity ? adaptive radiation
underpants gnome problem. But it isn't, exactly. The gnomes' business model can't get to from step 1 (collect underpants) to step 3 (profit) because they don't have a step 2. Evolutionary ecologists, on the other hand, already have their step 3 in the phenomenon of adaptive radiation. Ecological opportunity looks like a good prospect for step 1 precisely because it suggests some plausible options for step 2.
When a population encounters ecological opportunity, the new habitat, new trait, or extinction of antagonists provides access to new resources, and relaxes natural selection on the population. This leads to three phenomena usually grouped together under the term ecological release
- The population experiences density compensation—more individuals can live in a particular area, creating stronger competition within the population.
- Because of this stronger competition within the population, or because there isn't much competition from other species, members of the population venture into new habitats, or use new food resources.
- The population becomes more diverse, either because of the relaxed selection, or because of competition-driven selection for using new habitat and new resources.
Anoles show signs of density compensation on Caribbean islands—is that the reason behind their diversification? (Pictured: Anolis oculatus.) Photo via WikiMedia Commons
But where's the speciation?
However, the evolution of bigger, more diverse populations is not the same thing as the evolution of new species—and that's what adaptive radiation is really all about. These changes resulting from ecological opportunity might directly promote speciation if stronger competition leads to disruptive natural selection. Similarly, the competition-driven incentive to colonize new habitats or exploit new food sources could expose some parts of the population to different forms of natural selection, eventually causing them to evolve into specialists on the new resources. Finally, even if speciation only happens when natural barriers cut off migration, maybe larger, more variable populations provide more diversity for vicariance events to divvy up.
This is all pretty speculative, though. We still don't know how often—or how rarely—divergent natural selection contributes to making new species. One way to deal with this is to approach the question from the other direction: look backward at the history of existing species, rather than following what happens to populations immediately after ecological release.
A backward-looking approach might use statistical analyses of the evolutionary relationships between living things to identify points in time when species formed unusually fast, and try to identify the cause. Some of my coauthors from the review paper recently published an analysis of the evolutionary tree connecting all vertebrates, and found that speciation rates increased around the origins of the largest group of birds, a large portion of the lizards and snakes, and non-marsupial mammals, among others.
This is very much a starting point, but maybe by complementing similar studies with research on populations currently evolving in response to ecological opportunity, biologists can work our way closer to understanding the origins of the endless and beautiful forms of life on Earth.
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