Getting out of their depth: How rockfish speciate without physical barriers

ResearchBlogging.orgMost evolutionary biologists believe that the easiest means for two populations to become reproductively isolated—a first step to splitting into different species—is a physical barrier to movement. Mountain ranges, deep river valleys, or the sheer distance between an island and the mainland—the opportunities for allopatric speciation are all over the place. Unless, of course, you remember that the planet’s largest habitat is the ocean, and there aren’t such obvious physical barriers out at sea.

How do fish and other marine organisms form new species, then? Maybe they’re more likely to speciate as a result of natural selection that varies among otherwise connected marine habitats. For instance, a new study of rockfish finds evidence that this new species in this group usually form by adapting to conditions found at different oceanic depths [$a].

Two rockfish species, Sebastes atrovirens and Sebastes chrysomelas. Photos by brian.gratwicke.

The rockfish genus Sebastes contains several dozen species, but many of them occur in about the same regions of the Pacific ocean. Rather than being separated by physical distance, the group has diversified into different ecological niches, from the intertidal zone down to depths of 600 meters. The new study’s author, Travis Ingram, wanted to determine whether these habitat differences or geographic distance has more often been the cause of rockfish speciation, which he did using two major analyses.

In the first, Ingram asked whether pairs of rockfish species were more or less likely to occupy the same latitudes, and the same depth ranges, as they diverged over time. Allopatric speciation would lead to closely-related rockfish species occupying separate latitude ranges, but Ingram found the opposite. On the other hand, closely-related rockfish species are less likely to live at the same depth in the ocean—so depth, not geographic distance, seems to be important in rockfish speciation.

Ingram’s second analysis takes advantage of the general principle that traits associated with forming new species should change relatively rapidly at about the same time as speciation events, rather than at a uniform rate over time. Traits that undergo this speciational evolution can be distinguished from traits that don’t based on the relationship between trait values of related species. The idea is to compare the trait values for pairs of species drawn from the group of interest—if the differences in trait values are more strongly correlated with the number of speciation events that have occurred since the pair of species last shared a common ancestor than with the raw time since that common ancestry, the trait has probably evolved in speciational fashion.

This is the pattern Ingram found in the depths occupied by different species of rockfish. Changes in depth range occupied by rockfish were associated with speciation events, rather than evolving steadily over time. How these changes could have contributed to reproductive isolation is another question—different depth habitats present rockfish with different kinds of predators and prey, but also with different light environments for visual mating signals. One or more of these environmental differences could create the sort of divergent natural selection that can lead to reproductive isolation and speciation.


Ingram, T. (2010). Speciation along a depth gradient in a marine adaptive radiation. Proc. Royal Soc. B : 10.1098/rspb.2010.1127

3 thoughts on “Getting out of their depth: How rockfish speciate without physical barriers

  1. As you suggest, sensory drive is probably the driving mechanism behind these speciation events. Seehausen et al’s 2008 article, ” Speciation through sensory drive in cichlid fish” is a great example of this. What’s particularly interesting is how the slope of the environmental gradient contributes to speciation: divergence is actually most likely on intermediate slopes as they select for divergence between populations, but also allow for gene flow, which selects for reproductive isolation.

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