Interview with the authors: Genomic signatures of sympatric speciation with historical and contemporary gene flow in a tropical anthozoan (Hexacorallia: Actiniaria)

Though increasing numbers of empirical studies suggest that sympatric speciation may be more common than previously thought, it is difficult to quantify the prevalence of sympatric speciation, since many different processes may lead to co-distributed sister species pairs. This difficulty is particularly pronounced in marine systems where there are relatively few barriers to dispersal. A recent paper by Benjamin Titus, Paul Blischak, and Marymegan Daly provides one of the first model-based investigations of sympatric speciation in a reef system. Titus and colleagues find support for cryptic diversity in the corkscrew anemone (Bartholomea annulata), and the two lineages that they recover co-occur. Model-based analyses support isolation with migration or secondary contact, suggesting that sympatric speciation may have occurred between these lineages. Finally, Titus and colleagues identify six loci that are putatively under divergent selection between these two lineages. Below, we go behind the scenes with lead author Benjamin Titus. Read the full article here.

Photo credit: Benjamin Titus.

What led to your interest in this topic / what was the motivation for this study? 
The motivation for this study evolved quite a bit from when I initially started the project. Initially, this work was part of a broader comparative phylogeographic study. However, like many poorly studied marine inverts, the anemone turned out to be a cryptic species complex that was fully co-distributed throughout its range. Since we found no obvious ecological differences between the cryptic taxa, the project shifted focus towards testing competing biogeographic diversification scenarios. Marine systems are highly dynamic, and species that diversify in allopatry can readily become co-distributed following secondary contact. Ultimately, we wanted to use model selection analyses to make objective inferences regarding the likelihood that this species diversified sympatrically versus allopatrically followed by secondary contact.

What difficulties did you run into along the way? 
Tropical anthozoans (e.g. corals, sea anemones, zoanthids, corallimorpharians) generally harbor endosymbiotic dinoflagellates, which allow these animals to thrive in the nutrient-poor waters of the tropics. Unfortunately, there is no avoiding them in field-collected samples, and the resulting DNA extractions harbor an unknown mix of anthozoan and dinoflagellate DNA. When I started this work no universal population-level markers existed for the Class Anthozoa, so we used a reduced representation sequencing approach. Thus, our resulting RADseq dataset is, presumably, an unknown mix of target and dinoflagellate DNA. Ultimately, we were really lucky there was a full genome from a closely related species that we could map our reads to so we could be confident that we were only left with anthozoan sequences.  

What is the biggest or most surprising finding from this study? 
I think there are a couple of important takeaways. The first is that coral reefs harbor an immense amount of biodiversity on a small fraction of seafloor, and in a setting with few hard barriers to dispersal. Sympatric speciation should be a major evolutionary process on coral reefs, but it’s rarely tested for explicitly. Given that different evolutionary processes can lead to similar biogeographic outcomes, our study is a rare empirical example demonstrating the importance of sympatric speciation on reefs.
The second is that this is the first range-wide phylogeographic study for a tropical sea anemone species, and our finding that Bartholomea annulata is a species complex underscores just how underdescribed sea anemone diversity likely is.

Moving forward, what are the next steps for this research? 
Our sampling here was necessarily coarse in order to cover the entire range of this species complex in the Tropical Western Atlantic. Fine scale sampling and sequencing would be nice to try and pin down any ecological differences between these cryptic taxa that may exist. Broadly, the field of marine phylogeography needs more evolutionary studies that incorporate demographic modeling into their analyses so we can better understand the relative contributions of allopatric and sympatric speciation on coral reefs.

What would your message be for students about to start their first research projects in this topic? 
Some of the most widely recognized species are actually cryptic species complexes. If you work on a poorly studied group and want to conduct population-level research, make sure you take the time to confirm you are only dealing with a single species. This is true for any group, but is especially true for marine invertebrates.

What have you learned about science over the course of this project? 
Staying on the poorly studied taxa theme, if you work on one, there’s an immense amount of basic systematic research that needs to be done. This project came out of my dissertation research, which I developed on what I thought were common and widely recognized species. A lot of my work turned into disentangling the systematics of cryptic species complexes. This is time consuming, but important so that downstream studies are framed in the proper taxonomic context.

Describe the significance of this research for the general scientific community in one sentence.
Sympatric speciation is an important, but difficult to demonstrate, evolutionary process in the marine environment.

Describe the significance of this research for your scientific community in one sentence.
Explicit tests of competing diversification scenarios are important to disentangle different evolutionary processes that can lead to similar biogeographic outcomes on coral reefs

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