Open Access Research article

Little ecological divergence associated with speciation in two African rain forest tree genera

Thomas LP Couvreur1*, Holly Porter-Morgan23, Jan J Wieringa4 and Lars W Chatrou5

Author Affiliations

1 Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), UMR DIA-DE, DYNADIV researche group, 911, avenue Agropolis, BP 64501, F-34394 Montpellier cedex 5, France

2 The New York Botanical Garden, 200th St. and Kazimiroff Blvd, Bronx, NY 10458-5126, USA

3 LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, 3110 Thomson Avenue, Long Island City, NY, USA

4 Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis (section NHN), Wageningen branch, and Wageningen University, Biosystematics group, Generaal Foulkesweg 37, 6703 BL Wageningen, The Netherlands

5 Wageningen University, Biosystematics group, Droevendaalsesteeg 1, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:296  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-296

Published: 11 October 2011



The tropical rain forests (TRF) of Africa are the second largest block of this biome after the Amazon and exhibit high levels of plant endemism and diversity. Two main hypotheses have been advanced to explain speciation processes that have led to this high level of biodiversity: allopatric speciation linked to geographic isolation and ecological speciation linked to ecological gradients. Both these hypotheses rely on ecology: in the former conservation of ecological niches through time is implied, while in the latter adaptation via selection to alternative ecological niches would be a prerequisite. Here, we investigate the role of ecology in explaining present day species diversity in African TRF using a species level phylogeny and ecological niche modeling of two predominantly restricted TRF tree genera, Isolona and Monodora (Annonaceae). Both these genera, with 20 and 14 species, respectively, are widely distributed in African TRFs, with a few species occurring in slightly less humid regions such as in East Africa.


A total of 11 sister species pairs were identified most of them occurring in allopatry or with little geographical overlap. Our results provide a mixed answer on the role of ecology in speciation. Although no sister species have identical niches, just under half of the tests suggest that sister species do have more similar niches than expected by chance. PCA analyses also support little ecological differences between sister species. Most speciation events within both genera predate the Pleistocene, occurring during the Late Miocene and Pliocene periods.


Ecology is almost always involved in speciation, however, it would seem to have had a little role in species generation within Isolona and Monodora at the scale analyzed here. This is consistent with the geographical speciation model for TRF diversification. These results contrast to other studies for non-TRF plant species where ecological speciation was found to be an important factor of diversification. The Pliocene period appears to be a vital time in the generation of African TRF diversity, whereas Pleistocene climatic fluctuations have had a smaller role on speciation than previously thought.

Ecological niche modeling, species level phylogeny, ecological speciation, African tropics, Isolona, Monodora, Annonaceae