Sloths, as we know and love them, are small, slow-moving creatures found in the trees of tropical rainforests. But modern sloths are pretty odd compared to their extinct relatives. Sloths (Folivora) are represented today by just six species in two families; the Megalonychidae (two-toed sloths) and the Bradypodidae (three-toed sloths). But 20,000 years ago there were perhaps as many as 50 species of sloth spread across the globe, and most were relatively large, ground-dwelling animals quite unlike modern sloths. While most modern sloths weigh in at a modest 6kg, extinct species such as Megatherium americanum and Eremotherium eomigrans could weigh up to 5 tonnes!
The World’s biodiversity is not evenly distributed. Some regions are hot spots for species richness, and biologists have been trying better to understand why these regions are special and what drives evolution and diversification. A recent paper by GEE’s Dr Julia Day and recent PhD graduate Dr Siobhan Cox, investigated the diversification of White-Eye Birds in East Africa’s Afromontane Biodiversity hotspot. Their results indicate that speciation in these birds has likely been driven by adaptation to a gradient of environmental conditions.
The East Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot (EABH) is one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, but it is under constant threat from increasing urbanisation in the area, which is predicted to continue over coming decades. It is therefore crucial to quantify what biodiversity is found in this hotspot, and understand the evolutionary processes that have made it a hotspot. The geography in this region is quite special, and is thought to have been a key factor driving high levels of species richness here. The Afromontane region is formed of a chain of ancient massifs (mountains created by faults and flexures in the Earth’s crust) and relatively young volcanoes. The low-lying regions between these peaks are covered in arid savannah, but montane forests appear on the peaks above about 800m. These forests exists as “ecological islands”, isolated from each other since the early Oligocene around 33 million years ago. Before this, conditions in the region were less arid and continuous forests covered the mountains and the valleys. As the forests retracted and fragmented, their inhabitants became isolated from one another, and this may have led to the emergence of new species, unique to each isolated montane fragment.
A Brief Introduction to Speciation
The processes by which new species arise depend upon the circumstances. Traditionally, speciation was thought to occur as a result of geographic separation of populations of a single ‘parent’ species. Once isolated and unable to interbreed, the two populations would slowly diverge from each other both due to random genetic change and adaptation to differing conditions. If enough time passed before the two populations came into contact with each other again, then they would eventually be so distinct that they were unable to interbreed even if they were reunited, and therefore should be classified as separate species. This is the standard model of speciation, known as allopatric speciation. It is now appreciated that new species can arise even without geographical isolation in a process known as sympatric speciation, often this can be caused by isolation of other kinds, such as behavioural isolation or through selective mate choice. It is generally accepted, however, that speciation requires, at least, a massive reduction in the rates of interbreeding between two populations or subspecies. Interbreeding will tend to restrain divergence as it mixes genes between the populations.
There are two main hypotheses for how the extraordinarily high levels of endemism arose on the montane forest ‘islands’:
- The Montane Speciation Model suggests that montane ‘islands’ became refugia for species as they tracked suitable conditions up the mountain. This idea is based on a general theory for speciation and divergence known as ‘niche conservatism’, which suggests that geographical isolation of populations is driven by an inability to adapt to changing conditions. Once isolated, populations begin to diverge from one-another and over time this generates very high species richness.
- The Gradient Speciation Model by contrast, hypotheses that new species emerge as a result of adaptation to different conditions along a gradient. In this model, adaptation and niche divergence drive speciation, and we expect to find related species living in adjacent habitats.
The EABH is home to over 1300 described species of bird, of which 110 are known to exist nowhere else on Earth. In a recent paper in Molecular Ecology, Dr Day, along with colleagues at the Natural History Museum (Tring, Hertfordshire), the Technical University of Munich and the National Museums of Kenya, investigated the pattern of divergence in African montane white-eyes (Zosterops), a group of small, gregarious birds. Each montane forest fragment houses a single, endemic species, while other species live on real islands, and others live in other habitats on the mainland. This makes them an ideal group to test the competing hypotheses of niche conservatism and niche divergence.
The authors collected mitochondrial and genomic DNA samples for 148 birds from 15 species found across the EABH and elsewhere. They estimated the evolutionary timing of each species’ divergence based on both geological and molecular data, to investigate whether the montane taxa speciated in their current habitat or elsewhere, and whether they speciated before or after the climatic changes that isolated forest fragments.
A Late Pleistocene Colonisation
Based on molecular data, the authors estimate that White-eyes colonised Africa in the late Pleistocene, around 1.55 million years ago, and then exhibited brief pulses of diversification from 0.9 million years ago until around 0.3 million years ago. The genus Zosterops therefore colonised the region long after the montane forest habitat had fragmented into ecological islands, discounting the montane speciation hypothesis. Montane species diverged from their lowland sisters around 1 million years ago, during the last major wet phase. In some cases, montane species were found to be older than species found in neighbouring lowland areas, indicating colonisation in the other direction. They found no evidence that diversification of the White-eyes corresponded with volcanic activity in the region, which has previously been suggested.
They found that many of the so-called ‘species’ of Zosterops in fact include multiple sub-species, and they found strong support for already identified subspecies. This suggests that different species and subspecies independently colonised the montane habitat, and have remained more or less the same since. That the lowland savannahs that exist between the montane islands is a strong barrier that isolates montane populations is strongly supported by their results – species on neighbouring sky islands are very different from each other genetically, indicating they have not interbred for a great deal of evolutionary time. This is similar to the pattern of colonisation and diversification seen in White-eye species that live on real islands, which likely present similar evolutionary pressures to the ecological islands found in fragmented habitats.
Overall, their results support a niche divergence explanation of speciation in Montane White-Eyes, consistent with the gradient hypothesis, and ruling out niche conservatism models, such as the montane speciation hypothesis. However, the authors point out that their results do not distinguish between the gradient hypothesis and similar alternative, the vanishing refugia model, which suggests that speciation occurs through adaptation to less favourable habitats as suitable habitat contracts and refugia become unable to maintain viable populations. Further research is needed to conclusively distinguish between these models. The relative climatic stability of the highland montane habitats, couples with frequent climatic fluctuations in low-land areas may have played a key role in diversification in White-eyes, and may be a key driver of endemism in this region.
This research was made possible by funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).