, Volume 500, Issue 1-3, pp 51-64

Evolution of the tribe Tropheini from Lake Tanganyika: synchronized explosive speciation producing multiple evolutionary parallelism

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One of the most surprising outcomes of recent molecular studies on cichlid fishes of the three Great East African Lakes Victoria, Malawi and Tanganyika, was the stunning rapidity of speciation and cladogenesis at early stages of adaptive radiation. Despite their rapid pace, speciation events were so far intuitively assumed to proceed in a bifurcating and tree-like fashion, even if they could not be resolved by gene phylogenies due to a lack of resolution. On the basis of phylogenetic analyses of the Tropheini, a lineage of endemic rock-dwelling cichlid fishes from Lake Tanganyika, we suggest a pathway of explosive speciation that accounts for a non-bifurcating manner of cladogenesis. This pattern is likely to be the result of the contemporaneous origin of a multitude of founder populations in geographically isolated rock habitats among which gene flow was interrupted simultaneously by a major change of the lake habitat in the form of a rapid rise of the lake level. As a consequence, all new species arising from that vicariance event must exhibit almost equal genetic distances to each other, within the scope of genetic diversity of the founder population(s), even if the actual processes of subsequent speciation and eco-morphological diversification followed independent routes. Our phylogeny also suggests a high frequency of parallel evolution of equivalent trophic specialization in the Tropheini. This phenomenon seems to be an inherent feature of this pathway of speciation, due to the action of similar selective forces on the same set of species colonizing isolated habitats of the same type. Explosive speciation via synchronization of genetic divergence triggered by rapid environmental changes seems to be particularly likely to occur at advanced stages of adaptive radiation, when species are already adapted to particular habitats and have a reduced ability for dispersal.