Ice sheets promote speciation in boreal birds

Jason T. Weir, Dolph Schluter

Abstract

The premise that Pleistocene ice ages played an important role in generating present–day species diversity has been challenged by genetic data indicating that most of the youngest terrestrial species on Earth coalesced long before major glacial advances. However, study has been biased towards faunas distributed at low latitudes that were not directly fragmented by advancing ice sheets. Using mitochondrial sequence divergence and a molecular clock, we compared the coalescence times of pairs of avian species belonging to superspecies complexes from the high–latitude boreal forest with those of sub–boreal and tropical avifaunas of the New World. Remarkably, all coalescence events in boreal superspecies date to the Pleistocene, providing direct evidence that speciation was commonly initiated during recent glacial periods. A pattern of endemism in boreal superspecies plausibly links the timing of divergence to the fragmentation of the boreal forest by ice sheets during the Mid– and Late Pleistocene. In contrast to the boreal superspecies, only 56% of sub–boreal and 46% of tropical superspecies members coalesced during the Pleistocene, suggesting that avifaunas directly fragmented by ice sheets experienced rapid rates of diversification, whereas those distributed farther south were affected to a lesser extent. One explanation for the absence of pre–Pleistocene superspecies in boreal avifaunas is that strong selection pressures operated in boreal refugia, causing superspecies members to achieve ecological differentiation at an accelerated rate.