Putting the Biological Species Concept to the Test: Using Mating Networks to Delimit Species

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Although interfertility is the key criterion upon which Mayr's biological species concept is based, it has never been applied directly to delimit species under natural conditions. Our study fills this gap. We used the interfertility criterion to delimit two closely related oak species in a forest stand by analyzing the network of natural mating events between individuals. The results reveal two groups of interfertile individuals connected by only few mating events. These two groups were largely congruent with those determined using other criteria (morphological similarity, genotypic similarity and individual relatedness). Our study, therefore, shows that the analysis of mating networks is an effective method to delimit species based on the interfertility criterion, provided that adequate network data can be assembled. Our study also shows that although species boundaries are highly congruent across methods of species delimitation, they are not exactly the same. Most of the differences stem from assignment of individuals to an intermediate category. The discrepancies between methods may reflect a biological reality. Indeed, the interfertility criterion is an environment-dependant criterion as species abundances typically affect rates of hybridization under natural conditions. Thus, the methods of species delimitation based on the interfertility criterion are expected to give results slightly different from those based on environment-independent criteria (such as the genotypic similarity criteria). However, whatever the criterion chosen, the challenge we face when delimiting species is to summarize continuous but non-uniform variations in biological diversity. The grade of membership model that we use in this study appears as an appropriate tool.




Lagache, L., Leger, J. B., Daudin, J. J., Petit, R. J., & Vacher, C. (2013). Putting the Biological Species Concept to the Test: Using Mating Networks to Delimit Species. PLoS ONE, 8(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0068267

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