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Sympatric speciation in palms on an oceanic island


The origin of species diversity has challenged biologists for over two centuries. Allopatric speciation, the divergence of species resulting from geographical isolation, is well documented1. However, sympatric speciation, divergence without geographical isolation, is highly controversial2. Claims of sympatric speciation must demonstrate species sympatry, sister relationships, reproductive isolation, and that an earlier allopatric phase is highly unlikely1. Here we provide clear support for sympatric speciation in a case study of two species of palm (Arecaceae) on an oceanic island. A large dated phylogenetic tree shows that the two species of Howea, endemic to the remote Lord Howe Island, are sister taxa and diverged from each other well after the island was formed 6.9 million years ago3. During fieldwork, we found a substantial disjunction in flowering time that is correlated with soil preference. In addition, a genome scan4,5 indicates that few genetic loci are more divergent between the two species than expected under neutrality, a finding consistent with models of sympatric speciation involving disruptive/divergent selection2. This case study of sympatric speciation in plants provides an opportunity for refining theoretical models on the origin of species, and new impetus for exploring putative plant and animal examples on oceanic islands.

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Figure 1: Lord Howe Island and its endemic palms.
Figure 2: Flowering phenology for each Howea species.
Figure 3: Distribution of H. forsteriana and H. belmoreana according to mean soil pH and elevation.
Figure 4: AFLP genome scan for species differentiation in H. belmoreana and H. forsteriana.


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We thank the Lord Howe Island Board, L. Wilson, T. Wilson, J. Smith and the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service for facilitating this research; E. Brown and B. Conn for logistical support; T. Wilmot, R. Cowan, L. Llédo, I. Gallego and L. Hanson for research assistance; C. Lewis, J. Roncal, M. Thomas and M. Beaumont for sharing data and software; J. Dowe, the Flecker Botanic Garden and Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney for providing material; J. Moat for GIS assistance; J. Dransfield, J.-C. Pintaud, S. Gavrilets, M. Chase, T. Barraclough and L. Rieseberg for discussions; and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the BAT Biodiversity Partnership, the European Commission and the Leverhulme Trust for funding.

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Correspondence to Vincent Savolainen.

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DNA sequences have been deposited at EBI under accession numbers AF453329–AF453381, AY348907–AY348944, AY543096–AY5443156, AJ830020–AJ831373, AJ971821–AJ971841 (see Supplementary Information). Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary notes with list of taxa, chronogram, phenological profiles and population statistics. (PDF 871 kb)

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Savolainen, V., Anstett, MC., Lexer, C. et al. Sympatric speciation in palms on an oceanic island. Nature 441, 210–213 (2006).

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