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Am Nat. 2004 May;163(5):709-25. Epub 2004 May 4.

Sympatric speciation by sexual selection: a critical reevaluation.

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  • 1Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies, University of Groningen, Kerklaan 30, 9751 NN Haren, The Netherlands. doorngs@biol.rug.nl


Several empirical studies put forward sexual selection as an important driving force of sympatric speciation. This idea agrees with recent models suggesting that speciation may proceed by means of divergent Fisherian runaway processes within a single population. Notwithstanding this, the models so far have not been able to demonstrate that sympatric speciation can unfold as a fully adaptive process driven by sexual selection alone. Implicitly or explicitly, most models rely on nonselective factors to initiate speciation. In fact, they do not provide a selective explanation for the considerable variation in female preferences required to trigger divergent runaway processes. We argue that such variation can arise by disruptive selection but only when selection on female preferences is frequency dependent. Adaptive speciation is therefore unattainable in traditional female choice models, which assume selection on female preferences to be frequency independent. However, when frequency-dependent sexual selection processes act alongside mate choice, truly adaptive sympatric speciation becomes feasible. Speciation is then initiated independently of nonadaptive processes and does not suffer from the theoretical weaknesses associated with the current Fisherian runaway model of speciation. However, adaptive speciation requires the simultaneous action of multiple mechanisms, and therefore it occurs under conditions far more restrictive than earlier models of sympatric speciation by sexual selection appear to suggest.

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