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Sympatric pitcher plants, Nepenthes jamban (left) and Nepenthes lingulata (right) in Sumatran upper montane forest N. jamban and N. lingulata.jpg
Sympatric pitcher plants, Nepenthes jamban (left) and Nepenthes lingulata (right) in Sumatran upper montane forest

In biology, two related species or populations are considered sympatric when they exist in the same geographic area and thus frequently encounter one another. [1] An initially interbreeding population that splits into two or more distinct species sharing a common range exemplifies sympatric speciation. Such speciation may be a product of reproductive isolation  – which prevents hybrid offspring from being viable or able to reproduce, thereby reducing gene flow  – that results in genetic divergence. [2] Sympatric speciation does not imply secondary contact, which is speciation or divergence in allopatry followed by range expansions leading to an area of sympatry. Sympatric species or taxa in secondary contact may or may not interbreed.


Types of populations

Four main types of population pairs exist in nature. Sympatric populations (or species) contrast with parapatric populations, which contact one another in adjacent but not shared ranges and do not interbreed; peripatric species, which are separated only by areas in which neither organism occurs; and allopatric species, which occur in entirely distinct ranges that are neither adjacent nor overlapping. [3] Allopatric populations isolated from one another by geographical factors (e.g., mountain ranges or bodies of water) may experience genetic—and, ultimately, phenotypic—changes in response to their varying environments. These may drive allopatric speciation, which is arguably the dominant mode of speciation.[ citation needed ]

Evolving definitions and controversy

The lack of geographic isolation as a definitive barrier between sympatric species has yielded controversy among ecologists, biologists, and zoologists regarding the validity of the term. As such, researchers have long debated the conditions under which sympatry truly applies, especially with respect to parasitism. Because parasitic organisms often inhabit multiple hosts during a life cycle, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr stated that internal parasites existing within different hosts demonstrate allopatry, not sympatry. Today, however, many biologists consider parasites and their hosts to be sympatric (see examples below). Conversely, zoologist Michael J. D. White considered two populations sympatric if genetic interbreeding was viable within the habitat overlap. This may be further specified as sympatry occurring within one deme; that is, reproductive individuals must be able to locate one another in the same population in order to be sympatric.

Others question the ability of sympatry to result in complete speciation: until recently, many researchers considered it nonexistent, doubting that selection alone could create disparate, but not geographically separated, species. In 2003, biologist Karen McCoy suggested that sympatry can act as a mode of speciation only when "the probability of mating between two individuals depend[s] [solely] on their genotypes, [and the genes are] dispersed throughout the range of the population during the period of reproduction". [4] In essence, sympatric speciation does require very strong forces of natural selection to be acting on heritable traits, as there is no geographic isolation to aid in the splitting process. Yet, recent research has begun to indicate that sympatric speciation is not as uncommon as was once assumed.


Triturus marmoratus 2.JPG
The northern crested newt and the marbled newt are sympatric in western France, but only rarely share the same breeding ponds in syntopy.

Syntopy is a special case of sympatry. It means the joint occurrence of two species in the same habitat at the same time. Just as the broader term sympatry, "syntopy" is used especially for close species that might hybridise or even be sister species. Sympatric species occur together in the same region, but do not necessarily share the same localities as syntopic species do. Areas of syntopy are of interest because they allow to study how similar species may coexist without outcompeting each other.

As an example, the two bat species Myotis auriculus and M. evotis were found to be syntopic in North America. [5] In contrast, the marbled newt and the northern crested newt have a large sympatric range in western France, but differ in their habitat preferences and only rarely occur syntopically in the same breeding ponds. [6]

Sympatric speciation

Different modes of speciation Speciation modes.svg
Different modes of speciation

The lack of geographic constraint in isolating sympatric populations implies that the emerging species avoid interbreeding via other mechanisms. Before speciation is complete, two diverging populations may still produce viable offspring. As speciation progresses, isolating mechanisms  – such as gametic incompatibility that renders fertilization of the egg impossible – are selected for in order to increase the reproductive divide between the two populations.

Species discrimination

Sympatric groups frequently show a greater ability to discriminate between their own species and other closely related species than do allopatric groups. This is shown in the study of hybrid zones. It is also apparent in the differences in levels of prezygotic isolation (by factors that prevent formation of a viable zygote) in both sympatric and allopatric populations. There are two main theories regarding this process: 1) differential fusion, which suggests that only populations with a keen ability to discriminate between species will persist in sympatry; and 2) character displacement, which implies that distinguishing characteristics will be heightened in areas where the species co-occur in order to facilitate discrimination.


Reinforcement is the process by which natural selection reinforces reproductive isolation. In sympatry, reinforcement increases species discrimination and sexual adaptation in order to avoid maladaptive hybridization and encourage speciation. If hybrid offspring are either sterile or less-fit than non-hybrid offspring, mating between members of two different species will be selected against. Natural selection decreases the probability of such hybridization by selecting for the ability to identify mates of one's own species from those of another species.

Reproductive character displacement

Reproductive character displacement strengthens the reproductive barriers between sympatric species by encouraging the divergence of traits that are crucial to reproduction. Divergence is frequently distinguished by assortative mating between individuals of the two species. [7] For example, divergence in the mating signals of two species will limit hybridization by reducing one's ability to identify an individual of the second species as a potential mate. Support for the reproductive character displacement hypothesis comes from observations of sympatric species in overlapping habitats in nature. Increased prezygotic isolation, which is associated with reproductive character displacement, has been observed in cicadas of genus Magicicada , stickleback fish, and the flowering plants of the genus Phlox .

Differential fusion

An alternative explanation for species discrimination in sympatry is differential fusion. This hypothesis states that of the many species have historically come into contact with one another, the only ones that persist in sympatry (and thus are seen today) are species with strong mating discrimination. On the other hand, species lacking strong mating discrimination are assumed to have fused while in contact, forming one distinct species.

Differential fusion is less widely recognized than character displacement, and several of its implications are refuted by experimental evidence. For example, differential fusion implies greater postzygotic isolation among sympatric species, as this functions to prevent fusion between the species. However, Coyne and Orr found equal levels of postzygotic isolation among sympatric and allopatric species pairs in closely related Drosophila . [8] Nevertheless, differential fusion remains a possible, though not complete, contributor to species discrimination. [9]


Sympatry has been increasingly evidenced in current research. Because of this, sympatric speciation  – which was once highly debated among researchers – is progressively gaining credibility as a viable form of speciation.

Orca: partial sympatry

Several distinct types of killer whale (Orcinus orca), which are characterized by an array of morphological and behavioral differences, live in sympatry throughout the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Antarctic oceans. In the North Pacific, three whale populations  – called "transient", "resident", and "offshore" – demonstrate partial sympatry, crossing paths with relative frequency. The results of recent genetic analyses using mtDNA indicate that this is due to secondary contact, in which the three types encountered one another following the bidirectional migration of "offshore" and "resident" whales between the North Atlantic and North Pacific. Partial sympatry in these whales is, therefore, not the result of speciation. Furthermore, killer whale populations that consist of all three types have been documented in the Atlantic, evidencing that interbreeding occurs among them. Thus, secondary contact does not always result in total reproductive isolation, as has often been predicted. [10]

Great spotted cuckoo and magpie: brood parasitism

Great spotted cuckoo, sympatric with the magpie Clamator glandarius (cropped 2).jpg
Great spotted cuckoo, sympatric with the magpie

The parasitic great spotted cuckoo (Clamator glandarius) and its magpie host, both native to Southern Europe, are completely sympatric species. However, the duration of their sympatry varies with location. For example, great spotted cuckoos and their magpie hosts in Hoya de Gaudix, southern Spain, have lived in sympatry since the early 1960s, while species in other locations have more recently become sympatric. Great spotted cuckoos, when in South Africa, are sympatric with at least 8 species of starling and 2 crows, pied crow and Cape crow. [11]

The great spotted cuckoo exhibits brood parasitism by laying a mimicked version of the magpie egg in the magpie's nest. Since cuckoo eggs hatch before magpie eggs, magpie hatchlings must compete with cuckoo hatchlings for resources provided by the magpie mother. This relationship between the cuckoo and the magpie in various locations can be characterized as either recently sympatric or anciently sympatric. The results of an experiment by Soler and Moller (1990) showed that in areas of ancient sympatry (species in cohabitation for many generations), magpies were more likely to reject most of the cuckoo eggs, as these magpies had developed counter-adaptations that aid in identification of egg type. In areas of recent sympatry, magpies rejected comparatively fewer cuckoo eggs. Thus, sympatry can cause coevolution, by which both species undergo genetic changes due to the selective pressures that one species exerts on the other. [12]

Acromyrmex ant: isolation of fungal gardens

Leafcutter ants protect and nourish various species of fungus as a source of food in a system known as ant-fungus mutualism. Leafcutter ants belonging to the genus Acromyrmex are known for their mutualistic relationship with Basidiomycete fungi. Ant colonies are closely associated with their fungus colonies, and may have co-evolved with a consistent vertical lineage of fungi in individual colonies. Ant populations defend against the horizontal transmission of foreign fungi to their fungal colony, as this transmission may lead to competitive stress on the local fungal garden. Invaders are identified and removed by the ant colony, inhibiting competition and fungal interbreeding. This active isolation of individual populations helps maintain the genetic purity of the fungal colony, and this mechanism may lead to sympatric speciation within a shared habitat. [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

Speciation Evolutionary process by which populations evolve to become distinct species

Speciation is the evolutionary process by which populations evolve to become distinct species. The biologist Orator F. Cook coined the term in 1906 for cladogenesis, the splitting of lineages, as opposed to anagenesis, phyletic evolution within lineages. Charles Darwin was the first to describe the role of natural selection in speciation in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. He also identified sexual selection as a likely mechanism, but found it problematic.

Allopatric speciation Speciation that occurs between geographically isolated populations

Allopatric speciation, also referred to as geographic speciation, vicariant speciation, or its earlier name, the dumbbell model, is a mode of speciation that occurs when biological populations become geographically isolated from each other to an extent that prevents or interferes with gene flow.

Sympatric speciation A process through which new species evolve from a single ancestral species while inhabiting the same geographic region

Sympatric speciation is the evolution of a new species from a surviving ancestral species while both continue to inhabit the same geographic region. In evolutionary biology and biogeography, sympatric and sympatry are terms referring to organisms whose ranges overlap so that they occur together at least in some places. If these organisms are closely related, such a distribution may be the result of sympatric speciation. Etymologically, sympatry is derived from the Greek roots συν ("together") and πατρίς ("homeland"). The term was coined by Edward Bagnall Poulton in 1904, who explains the derivation.

Peripatric speciation Speciation in which a new species is formed from an isolated smaller peripheral population

Peripatric speciation is a mode of speciation in which a new species is formed from an isolated peripheral population. Since peripatric speciation resembles allopatric speciation, in that populations are isolated and prevented from exchanging genes, it can often be difficult to distinguish between them. Nevertheless, the primary characteristic of peripatric speciation proposes that one of the populations is much smaller than the other. The terms peripatric and peripatry are often used in biogeography, referring to organisms whose ranges are closely adjacent but do not overlap, being separated where these organisms do not occur—for example on an oceanic island compared to the mainland. Such organisms are usually closely related ; their distribution being the result of peripatric speciation.

Character displacement

Character displacement is the phenomenon where differences among similar species whose distributions overlap geographically are accentuated in regions where the species co-occur, but are minimized or lost where the species' distributions do not overlap. This pattern results from evolutionary change driven by biological competition among species for a limited resource. The rationale for character displacement stems from the competitive exclusion principle, also called Gause's Law, which contends that to coexist in a stable environment two competing species must differ in their respective ecological niche; without differentiation, one species will eliminate or exclude the other through competition.

Parapatric speciation Speciation within a population where subpopulations are reproductively isolated

In parapatric speciation, two subpopulations of a species evolve reproductive isolation from one another while continuing to exchange genes. This mode of speciation has three distinguishing characteristics: 1) mating occurs non-randomly, 2) gene flow occurs unequally, and 3) populations exist in either continuous or discontinuous geographic ranges. This distribution pattern may be the result of unequal dispersal, incomplete geographical barriers, or divergent expressions of behavior, among other things. Parapatric speciation predicts that hybrid zones will often exist at the junction between the two populations.

A hybrid zone exists where the ranges of two interbreeding species or diverged intraspecific lineages meet and cross-fertilize. Hybrid zones can form in situ due to the evolution of a new lineage but generally they result from secondary contact of the parental forms after a period of geographic isolation, which allowed their differentiation. Hybrid zones are useful in studying the genetics of speciation as they can provide natural examples of differentiation and (sometimes) gene flow between populations that are at some point between representing a single species and representing multiple species in reproductive isolation.

The mechanisms of reproductive isolation are a collection of evolutionary mechanisms, behaviors and physiological processes critical for speciation. They prevent members of different species from producing offspring, or ensure that any offspring are sterile. These barriers maintain the integrity of a species by reducing gene flow between related species.

In biology, a cline is a measurable gradient in a single character of a species across its geographical range. First coined by Julian Huxley in 1938, the “character” of the cline referred to is usually genetic, or phenotypic. Clines can show smooth, continuous gradation in a character, or they may show more abrupt changes in the trait from one geographic region to the next.

Genetic isolation is population of organisms that has little genetic mixing with other organisms within the same species. This may result in speciation, but this is not necessarily the case. Genetic isolates may form new species in several ways:

Introduction to evolution non-technical overview of the subject of biological evolution

Evolution is the process of change in all forms of life over generations, and evolutionary biology is the study of how evolution occurs. Biological populations evolve through genetic changes that correspond to changes in the organisms' observable traits. Genetic changes include mutations, which are caused by damage or replication errors in organisms' DNA. As the genetic variation of a population drifts randomly over generations, natural selection gradually leads traits to become more or less common based on the relative reproductive success of organisms with those traits.

Ecological speciation

Ecological speciation is the process by which ecologically based divergent selection between different environments leads to the creation of reproductive barriers between populations. This is often the result of selection over traits which are genetically correlated to reproductive isolation, thus speciation occurs as a by-product of adaptive divergence.

Mycocepurus castrator is a species of parasitic ant, in the genus Mycocepurus, native to Brazil. Described in 2010, the species is a workerless and obligate parasite of the related ant Mycocepurus goeldii. It is known only from Rio Claro, Brazil, and has only been found in nests of M. goeldii.

<i>Mycocepurus goeldii</i> Species of ant

Mycocepurus goeldii is a species of ant in the genus Mycocepurus.

<i>Enchenopa binotata</i> complex species of insect

Enchenopa binotata is a complex of multiple species found mostly in Eastern North America, but have also been reported in Central America. They are commonly referred to as treehoppers and are sap-feeding insects. The species in the complex look similar to each other in morphology, but are identified as different species by the host plant they occupy.

Reinforcement (speciation) process of speciation where natural selection increases the reproductive isolation between two populations of species

Reinforcement is a process of speciation where natural selection increases the reproductive isolation between two populations of species. This occurs as a result of selection acting against the production of hybrid individuals of low fitness. The idea was originally developed by Alfred Russel Wallace and is sometimes referred to as the Wallace effect. The modern concept of reinforcement originates from Theodosius Dobzhansky. He envisioned a species separated allopatrically, where during secondary contact the two populations mate, producing hybrids with lower fitness. Natural selection results from the hybrid's inability to produce viable offspring; thus members of one species who do not mate with members of the other have greater reproductive success. This favors the evolution of greater prezygotic isolation. Reinforcement is one of the few cases in which selection can favor an increase in prezygotic isolation, influencing the process of speciation directly. This aspect has been particularly appealing among evolutionary biologists.

History of speciation Wikimedia history article

The scientific study of speciation — how species evolve to become new species — began around the time of Charles Darwin in the middle of the 19th century. Many naturalists at the time recognized the relationship between biogeography and the evolution of species. The 20th century saw the growth of the field of speciation, with major contributors such as Ernst Mayr researching and documenting species' geographic patterns and relationships. The field grew in prominence with the modern evolutionary synthesis in the early part of that century. Since then, research on speciation has expanded immensely.

Evidence for speciation by reinforcement

Reinforcement is a process within speciation where natural selection increases the reproductive isolation between two populations of species by reducing the production of hybrids. Evidence for speciation by reinforcement has been gathered since the 1990s, and along with data from comparative studies and laboratory experiments, has overcome many of the objections to the theory. Differences in behavior or biology that inhibit formation of hybrid zygotes are termed prezygotic isolation. Reinforcement can be shown to be occurring by measuring the strength of prezygotic isolation in a sympatric population in comparison to an allopatric population of the same species. Comparative studies of this allow for determining large-scale patterns in nature across various taxa. Mating patterns in hybrid zones can also be used to detect reinforcement. Reproductive character displacement is seen as a result of reinforcement, so many of the cases in nature express this pattern in sympatry. Reinforcement's prevalence is unknown, but the patterns of reproductive character displacement are found across numerous taxa, and is considered to be a common occurrence in nature. Studies of reinforcement in nature often prove difficult, as alternative explanations for the detected patterns can be asserted. Nevertheless, empirical evidence exists for reinforcement occurring across various taxa and its role in precipitating speciation is conclusive.

Laboratory experiments of speciation overview about laboratory experiments of speciation

Laboratory experiments of speciation have been conducted for all four modes of speciation: allopatric, peripatric, parapatric, and sympatric; and various other processes involving speciation: hybridization, reinforcement, founder effects, among others. Most of the experiments have been done on flies, in particular Drosophila fruit flies. However, more recent studies have tested yeasts, fungi, and even viruses.


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