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Open Access Open Badges Research article

How common is ecological speciation in plant-feeding insects? A 'Higher' Nematinae perspective

Tommi Nyman1*, Veli Vikberg2, David R Smith3 and Jean-Luc Boevé4

Author affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Eastern Finland, P.O. Box 111, FI-80101 Joensuu, Finland

2 Liinalammintie 11 as. 6, FI-14200 Turenki, Finland

3 Systematic Entomology Laboratory, PSI, Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, c/o National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, P.O. Box 37012, MRC 168, Washington, DC 20013-7012, USA

4 Department of Entomology, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Rue Vautier 29, B-1000 Brussels, Belgium

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:266  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-266

Published: 1 September 2010



Ecological speciation is a process in which a transiently resource-polymorphic species divides into two specialized sister lineages as a result of divergent selection pressures caused by the use of multiple niches or environments. Ecology-based speciation has been studied intensively in plant-feeding insects, in which both sympatric and allopatric shifts onto novel host plants could speed up diversification. However, while numerous examples of species pairs likely to have originated by resource shifts have been found, the overall importance of ecological speciation in relation to other, non-ecological speciation modes remains unknown. Here, we apply phylogenetic information on sawflies belonging to the 'Higher' Nematinae (Hymenoptera: Tenthredinidae) to infer the frequency of niche shifts in relation to speciation events.


Phylogenetic trees reconstructed on the basis of DNA sequence data show that the diversification of higher nematines has involved frequent shifts in larval feeding habits and in the use of plant taxa. However, the inferred number of resource shifts is considerably lower than the number of past speciation events, indicating that the majority of divergences have occurred by non-ecological allopatric speciation; based on a time-corrected analysis of sister species, we estimate that a maximum of c. 20% of lineage splits have been triggered by a change in resource use. In addition, we find that postspeciational changes in geographic distributions have led to broad sympatry in many species having identical host-plant ranges.


Our analysis indicates that the importance of niche shifts for the diversification of herbivorous insects is at present implicitly and explicitly overestimated. In the case of the Higher Nematinae, employing a time correction for sister-species comparisons lowered the proportion of apparent ecology-based speciation events from c. 50-60% to around 20%, but such corrections are still lacking in other herbivore groups. The observed convergent but asynchronous shifting among dominant northern plant taxa in many higher-nematine clades, in combination with the broad overlaps in the geographic distributions of numerous nematine species occupying near-identical niches, indicates that host-plant shifts and herbivore community assembly are largely unconstrained by direct or indirect competition among species. More phylogeny-based studies on connections between niche diversification and speciation are needed across many insect taxa, especially in groups that exhibit few host shifts in relation to speciation.