Does niche conservatism promote speciation? A case study in North American salamanders

Kenneth H. Kozak, John J. Wiens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

421 Scopus citations


Recent speciation research has generally focused on how lineages that originate in allopatry evolve intrinsic reproductive isolation, or how ecological divergence promotes nonallopatric speciation. However, the ecological basis of allopatric isolation, which underlies the most common geographic mode of speciation, remains poorly understood and largely unstudied. Here, we explore the ecological and evolutionary factors that promote speciation in Desmognathus and Plethodon salamanders from temperate eastern North America. Based on published molecular phylogenetic estimates and the degree of geographic range overlap among extant species, we find strong evidence for a role for geographic isolation in speciation. We then examine the relationship between climatic variation and speciation in 16 sister-taxon pairs using geographic information system maps of climatic variables, new methods for modeling species' potential geographic distributions, and data on geographic patterns of genetic variation. In contrast to recent studies in tropical montane regions, we found no evidence for parapatric speciation along climatic gradients. Instead, many montane sister taxa in the Appalachian Highlands inhabit similar climatic niches and seemingly are allopatric because they are unable to tolerate the climatic conditions in the intervening lowlands. This temporal and spatial-ecological pattern suggests that niche conservatism, rather than niche divergence, plays the primary role in promoting allopatric speciation and montane endemism in this species-rich group of vertebrates. Our results demonstrate that even the relatively subtle climatic differences between montane and lowland habitats in eastern North America may play a key role in the origin of new species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2604-2621
Number of pages18
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2006


  • Amphibia
  • Appalachians
  • Biodiversity informatics
  • Climate
  • Diversification
  • Montane endemism
  • Niche modeling
  • Plethodontidae
  • Speciation


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