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Does a shift in host plants trigger speciation in the Alpine leaf beetle Oreina speciosissima (Coleoptera, Chrysomelidae)?

Matthias Borer1, Tom van Noort2*, Nils Arrigo3, Sven Buerki4 and Nadir Alvarez5

Author Affiliations

1 Museum of Natural History Neuchâtel, Rue des Terreaux 14, 2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland

2 Laboratory of Evolutionary Entomology, Institute of Biology, University of Neuchâtel, Rue Emile-Argand 11, 2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland

3 Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 85721, USA

4 Jodrell Laboratory, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3DS, UK

5 Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, Biophore Building, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:310  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-310

Published: 20 October 2011



Within the Coleoptera, the largest order in the animal kingdom, the exclusively herbivorous Chrysomelidae are recognized as one of the most species rich beetle families. The evolutionary processes that have fueled radiation into the more than thirty-five thousand currently recognized leaf beetle species remain partly unresolved. The prominent role of leaf beetles in the insect world, their omnipresence across all terrestrial biomes and their economic importance as common agricultural pest organisms make this family particularly interesting for studying the mechanisms that drive diversification. Here we specifically focus on two ecotypes of the alpine leaf beetle Oreina speciosissima (Scop.), which have been shown to exhibit morphological differences in male genitalia roughly corresponding to the subspecies Oreina speciosissima sensu stricto and Oreina speciosissima troglodytes. In general the two ecotypes segregate along an elevation gradient and by host plants: Oreina speciosissima sensu stricto colonizes high forb vegetation at low altitude and Oreina speciosissima troglodytes is found in stone run vegetation at higher elevations. Both host plants and leaf beetles have a patchy geographical distribution. Through use of gene sequencing and genome fingerprinting (AFLP) we analyzed the genetic structure and habitat use of Oreina speciosissima populations from the Swiss Alps to examine whether the two ecotypes have a genetic basis. By investigating a wide range of altitudes and focusing on the structuring effect of habitat types, we aim to provide answers regarding the factors that drive adaptive radiation in this phytophagous leaf beetle.


While little phylogenetic resolution was observed based on the sequencing of four DNA regions, the topology and clustering resulting from AFLP genotyping grouped specimens according to their habitat, mostly defined by plant associations. A few specimens with intermediate morphologies clustered with one of the two ecotypes or formed separate clusters consistent with habitat differences. These results were discussed in an ecological speciation framework.


The question of whether this case of ecological differentiation occurred in sympatry or allopatry remains open. Still, the observed pattern points towards ongoing divergence between the two ecotypes which is likely driven by a recent shift in host plant use.