What Is Allopatric Speciation?

By Ulla Rothschuh Osorio, Biologist. Updated: September 5, 2023
What Is Allopatric Speciation?

Speciation is a fundamental process in evolutionary biology that involves the formation of new distinct species from a common ancestral population. This process plays a critical role in the diversification of life on Earth, leading to the incredible variety of species that inhabit our planet. There are several mechanisms of speciation, including allopatric speciation, which results from geographical isolation.

The following article from thedailyECO explains what allopatric speciation is, outlining its primary characteristics, various types, and offering illustrative examples.

You may also be interested in: What Is Rapid Evolution? - Definition

What is allopatric speciation?

Allopatric speciation is a crucial process in the formation of new species, marked by a geographic or physical division that gives rise to two distinct species from a common ancestor. This type of speciation originates from an extrinsic factor initially foreign to the organisms, but which triggers subsequent internal changes, leading to reproductive isolation.

The division of a species into two separate lineages occurs due to pronounced environmental differences in the respective geographical regions. These disparities impose selective pressures that necessitate specific adaptations in each population. Over time, these adaptations lead to substantial genetic and phenotypic alterations that ultimately inhibit interbreeding between the two groups, resulting in the emergence of two distinct species.

Several scenarios can give rise to allopatric speciation, these include:

  • Continental drift: The movement of tectonic plates can physically separate populations. As continents shift over time, species on different landmasses evolve independently, driven by unique environmental conditions.

  • Geological changes: alterations in river paths, the formation of new mountain ranges through volcanic activity or tectonic forces, and landslides can all create barriers that fragment a species' range.

  • Geographical barriers: geographic separation can occur even without a physical division. Species located far apart may experience different selective pressures and adaptations due to their distinct environments.

  • Accidental events: events like shipwrecks, migration, or the colonization of new areas can result in isolated populations, initiating speciation.

  • Ecological barriers: features like deserts or other inhospitable habitats can divide populations, leading to divergence due to the distinct conditions each group faces.

Allopatric speciation is not only the most common type but also one of the swiftest. It has been responsible for the majority of species diversity observed today. This mechanism has led to the remarkable biodiversity that has evolved over time, enriching ecosystems with a wide array of species adapted to diverse environments.

Be sure not to overlook this other article, as it delves into the concept of parallel evolution in biology.

Types of allopatric speciation

Allopatric speciation can occur through different mechanisms based on the geographic or physical barriers that separate populations. Here are some of the common types of allopatric speciation:

Geographic isolation

This is the classic form of allopatric speciation where a physical barrier such as a river, mountain range, or body of water separates a single population into two or more isolated groups. Over time, genetic divergence occurs due to different selective pressures and adaptations to the distinct environments.

Peripatric speciation

In this form, a small group of individuals from a larger population becomes isolated in a new or distant environment. This smaller group, known as a founder population, faces different conditions and selective pressures, leading to rapid genetic changes and speciation.

Parapatric speciation

In parapatric speciation, populations are separated by an environmental gradient, such as a transition from a forested habitat to a grassland. The different selective pressures along this gradient can cause the populations to evolve independently and eventually become distinct species.

After populations have undergone allopatric speciation, there is a possibility that they come back into contact due to changes in their geographic distribution. This secondary contact can lead to hybridization, gene flow, or reinforcement of reproductive barriers.

It's important to note that the categorization of these types of speciation is not always clear-cut, and there can be overlap or variations in the mechanisms. Additionally, allopatric speciation is just one mode of speciation, and other mechanisms like sympatric speciation and hybridization can also contribute to the generation of new species. The specific circumstances and environmental factors surrounding each instance of allopatric speciation can lead to diverse outcomes and patterns of divergence.

What Is Allopatric Speciation? - Types of allopatric speciation

Examples of allopatric speciation

Now that we have explored the concept and characteristics of allopatric speciation, as well as its various types, let's delve into some historical examples that vividly illustrate this process:

Hawaiian Honeycreepers

Hawaiian honeycreepers are a group of birds that underwent allopatric speciation on the Hawaiian Islands. Their beak shapes and sizes vary greatly due to adaptation to different diets, such as nectar-feeding, insect-eating, and seed-cracking. The diverse range of habitats on the islands contributed to the evolution of distinct species within this group.

Isthmus of Panama

Around three million years ago, the formation of the Isthmus of Panama caused a separation between Central America and South America, dividing the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic. This event led to the isolation of numerous species. An example involves snapping shrimp (genus Alpheus), which diverged into distinct species on either side of the isthmus. Genetic analysis traced this divergence to the time of the geological formation.

Australian Marsupials

Australia's isolation led to unique marsupial species evolving through allopatric speciation. For example, different species of kangaroos and wallabies are found across different regions of Australia, each adapted to the specific environments they inhabit.

Galapagos Tortoises

The Galapagos Islands are known for their iconic tortoises, which have evolved into distinct species on different islands. Allopatric speciation occurred due to variations in vegetation and habitat conditions, leading to differences in tortoise shell shape and size.

Vaquita Porpoise

The vaquita porpoise provides a more recent example of allopatric speciation. Originating from climatic changes, this small cetacean diverged from the spiny porpoise (Phocoena spinipinnis). Some individuals migrated to the Gulf of California, adapting to the new environment and giving rise to a distinct species known as Phocoena sinus or vaquita. Sadly, this species is critically endangered due to low reproduction rates and accidental entanglement in fishing nets.

Anole Lizards in the Caribbean

Anole lizards in the Caribbean islands have diversified through allopatric speciation. Each island has different ecological niches and selective pressures, leading to distinct adaptations in anole species on different islands. For example, in the Greater Antilles, Anolis lizards have evolved unique characteristics based on habitat, such as those adapted to ground, trunk, and twig habitats.

These examples highlight the real-world scenarios in which allopatric speciation has occurred, shaping the diversity of life through geographical isolation and unique environmental pressures. If you're seeking further insights into evolution, make sure not to overlook this additional article that elaborates on the concept of rapid evolution.

What Is Allopatric Speciation? - Examples of allopatric speciation

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  • Mejía, C., Pinilla, M., Suárez, C. (2017) Reproductive overview of the vaquita marina . GEAS Bulletin Volume 1 - Number 1 • Sem 1 2017 Issn: 2590-8480.

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