It’s not every day that scientists observe a new species emerging in real time. Charles Darwin believed that speciation probably took place over hundreds if not thousands of generations, advancing far too gradually to be detected directly. The biologists who followed him have generally defaulted to a similar understanding and have relied on indirect clues, gleaned from genomes and fossils, to infer complex organisms’ evolutionary histories.
Some of those clues suggest that interbreeding plays a larger role in the formation of new species than previously thought. But the issue remains contentious: Hybridization has been definitively shown to cause widespread speciation only in plants. When it comes to animals, it has remained a hypothesis (albeit one that’s gaining increasing support) about events that typically occurred in the distant, unseen past.
Until now. In a paper published last month in Science, researchers reported that a new animal species had evolved by hybridization — and that it had occurred before their eyes in the span of merely two generations. The breakneck pace of that speciation event turned heads both in the scientific community and in the media. The mechanism by which it occurred is just as noteworthy, however, because of what it suggests about the undervalued role of hybrids in evolution. [Continue reading…]