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Ring species as demonstrations of the continuum of species formation

Pereira, Ricardo J., Wake, David B.
Molecular ecology 2015 v.24 no.21 pp. 5312-5314
birds, forest habitats, gene flow, lowlands, models, Thailand
In the mid‐20th century, Ernst Mayr (1942) and Theodosius Dobzhansky (1958) championed the significance of ‘circular overlaps’ or ‘ring species’ as the perfect demonstration of the gradual nature of species formation. As an ancestral species expands its range, wrapping around a geographic barrier, derived taxa within the ring display interactions typical of populations, such as genetic and morphological intergradation, while overlapping taxa at the terminus of the ring behave largely as sympatric, reproductively isolated species. Are ring species extremely rare or are they just difficult to detect? What conditions favour their formation? Modelling studies have attempted to address these knowledge gaps by estimating the biological parameters that result in stable ring species (Martins et al. 2013), and determining the necessary topographic parameters of the barriers encircled (Monahan et al. 2012). However, any generalization is undermined by a major limitation: only a handful of ring species are known to exist in nature. In addition, many of them have been broken into multiple species presumed to be evolving independently, usually obscuring the evolutionary dynamics that generate diversity. A paper in this issue of Molecular Ecology by Fuchs et al. (2015), focused on the entire genealogy of a bulbul (Alophoixus) species complex, offers key insights into the evolutionary processes underlying diversification of this Indo‐Malayan bird. Their findings fulfil most of the criteria that can be expected for ring species (Fig.): an ancestor has colonized the mainland from Sundaland, expanded along the forested habitat wrapping around Thailand's lowlands, adjacent taxa intergrade around the ring distribution, and terminal taxa overlap at the ring closure. Although it remains unclear whether ring divergence has resulted in restrictive gene flow relative to that observed around the ring, their results suggest that circular overlaps might be more common in nature than currently recognized in the literature. Most importantly, this work shows that the continuum of species formation that Mayr and Dobzhansky praised in circular overlaps is found in biological systems currently described as ‘rings of species’, in addition to the idealized ‘ring species’.