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In the mid 20th century, Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky championed the significance of circular overlaps or ring species as the perfect demonstration of speciation, yet in the over 50 years since, only a handful of such taxa are known. We developed a topographic model to evaluate whether the geographic barriers that favor processes leading to ring species are common or rare, and to predict where other candidate ring barriers might be found.
Of the 952,147 geographic barriers identified on the planet, only about 1% are topographically similar to barriers associated with known ring taxa, with most of the likely candidates occurring in under-studied parts of the world (for example, marine environments, tropical latitudes). Predicted barriers separate into two distinct categories: (i) single cohesive barriers (< 50,000 km2), associated with taxa that differentiate at smaller spatial scales (salamander: Ensatina eschscholtzii; tree: Acacia karroo); and (ii) composite barriers - formed by groups of barriers (each 184,000 to 1.7 million km2) in close geographic proximity (totaling 1.9 to 2.3 million km2) - associated with taxa that differentiate at larger spatial scales (birds: Phylloscopus trochiloides and Larus (sp. argentatus and fuscus)). When evaluated globally, we find a large number of cohesive barriers that are topographically similar to those associated with known ring taxa. Yet, compared to cohesive barriers, an order of magnitude fewer composite barriers are similar to those that favor ring divergence in species with higher dispersal.
While these findings confirm that the topographic conditions that favor evolutionary processes leading to ring speciation are, in fact, rare, they also suggest that many understudied natural systems could provide valuable demonstrations of continuous divergence towards the formation of new species. Distinct advantages of the model are that it (i) requires no a priori information on the relative importance of features that define barriers, (ii) can be replicated using any kind of continuously distributed environmental variable, and (iii) generates spatially explicit hypotheses of geographic species formation. The methods developed here - combined with study of the geographical ecology and genetics of taxa in their environments - should enable recognition of ring species phenomena throughout the world.