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Reproductive Isolation

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Biology

What prevents different species from interbreeding? When two different species mate, what prevents the development of hybrid populations? Are there exceptions where different species can successfully breed to produce viable offspring? This article will discuss the definition of reproductive isolation, elaborate on reproductive isolation mechanisms, discuss what mechanisms prevent interbreeding and the exceptions, and then delve into how reproductive isolation leads to speciation.

What Is the Definition of Reproductive Isolation?

Reproductive isolation is the inability of sexual organisms to interbreed. Reproductive isolation is integral to the biological species concept.

The biological species concept defines species as populations whose members interbreed or potentially interbreed with one another and produce viable, fertile offspring. This means that reproductive isolation separates one species from another. Species that have evolved reproductive isolation cannot reproduce with each other or cannot produce viable (able to survive), fertile (able to reproduce) offspring.

There are notable exceptions to this rule. Being able to successfully interbreed and produce viable offspring does not always indicate that two animals are the same species.

For example, all true crocodile species (Crocodylus genus) are capable of interbreeding and producing viable hybrid offspring (i.e. offspring that are able to survive). This is so common in the wild that it is actually threatening populations of endangered species that are breeding with more common species and diluting their genetic purity!

What Are the Types and Some Examples of Reproductive Isolation Mechanisms?

Reproductive isolation mechanisms prevent gene flow between different species and limit the development of hybrids, the offspring of two different species.

One reproductive isolation mechanism may not completely block gene flow, but a combination can effectively separate the gene pool of a species. There are various types of reproductive isolation mechanisms. These can be grouped into two broad categories: prezygotic and postzygotic barriers.

Gene flow: the movement of genes from one population to another.

Gene pool: the set of genetic information of a population

What Are Prezygotic Barriers?

A zygote is a fertilized egg cell that is formed through the union of two reproductive cells. ‘Prezygotic’ means before the formation of the zygote. Prezygotic barriers are reproductive isolation mechanisms that prevent the formation of the zygote.

The following section will discuss four prezygotic barriers: temporal isolation, geographic isolation, behavioral isolation, and gametic barrier.

Temporal Isolation

Many organisms mate only during specific times of the year. This means that, for many organisms, their breeding schedules do not match. Differences in breeding schedules are called temporal isolation. Temporal isolation prevents reproduction between organisms that have different breeding schedules.

For example, the western spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis) and the eastern spotted skunk (S. putorius) cannot interbreed because the western spotted skunk breeds in fall while the eastern spotted skunk breeds in late winter.

Geographic Isolation

A population could become physically separated from other populations of the same species. That means its members no longer interbreed with the original population. This is called geographic isolation. Figure 1 shows how a population could be geographically isolated as a result of climatic changes in a mountainous region.

Geographic isolation

Figure 1. This diagram shows how geographic isolation can develop in a population inhabiting a valley. Source: Andrew Z. Colvin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

When a population is geographically isolated, its succeeding generations develop new, distinct traits based on the demands of their specific habitat, or the genetic makeup of the parent population. Over time, they become so different that they no longer interbreed with the other populations even if they are in the same habitat at the same time. At this point, they have developed reproductive isolation and have evolved into separate, distinct species.

For example, ratites--a group that consists of various large flightless birds (Fig. 2)--are found in Australia, South America, Africa, New Guinea, and New Zealand, all of which are far from each other. These flightless birds can be traced back to a common ancestor that once inhabited the supercontinent Gondwana. When Gondwana broke up into different landmasses, populations of the ancestral species became geographically isolated, giving rise to the different species of present-day ratites.

Ratites

Figure 2. This collage shows four examples of ratites (clockwise from top left): Greater Rhea, Ostrich, Emu, and Cassowary. Source: Bernard DUPONTUser:KoreUser:KadellarDonald Hobern, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Common

Behavioral Isolation

Some organisms use particular behaviors to attract mates. Consequently, when these behaviors are different or absent, reproduction does not take place. This mechanism is called behavioral isolation.

For example, male fireflies display lights in specific patterns to attract mates. These patterns are unique for each species. If a male firefly of one species tried to attract a female firefly of another species, the light pattern used by the male firefly would be unfamiliar to the female firefly, and they would not mate.

Gametic Barrier

Gametes are reproductive cells. Some organisms may attempt to mate but they have gametes that are not compatible with each other. Differences in gametes prevent fertilization. This mechanism is called a gametic barrier.

For example, plants have structures that vary in length and diameter. The aim is to attract certain pollinators while preventing a different pollinator from accessing the pollen. These unique structures prevent cross-pollination with other species.

What Are Postzygotic Barriers?

'Postzygotic' means after the formation of the zygote. Postzygotic barriers are reproductive isolation mechanisms that prevent reproduction after the zygote is formed. Postzygotic barriers result in hybrid offspring that are either inviable or sterile. In the following section, we will discuss hybrid inviability and hybrid sterility.

Hybrid Inviability

Viable refers to the ability to sustain life. Hybrid inviability is the inability of a hybrid individual to sustain life. In many cases, hybrid individuals cannot survive past the embryonic stages. If they do survive, they may not mature into healthy adults.

Hybrid Sterility

If the hybrid individual is able to survive, it is likely to be sterile. Hybrid sterility is the inability of a hybrid individual to produce offspring. An example of this is the mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey (Fig. 3). Mules are sterile; they are incapable of producing their own offspring.

Mule

Figure 3. Mules are the sterile hybrid offspring of horses and donkeys. Mules are incapable of producing their own offspring. Source: w:User: Dario u / User: Dario urruty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

How Does Reproductive Isolation Cause Speciation?

Gene flow occurs between populations of the same species but not between populations of different species. Members of a species can interbreed, so the species as a whole shares a common gene pool. On the other hand, members of different species usually do not interbreed. If they do, they will produce inviable or sterile offspring and will be unable to pass on their genes. This means that the presence or absence of gene flow can distinguish one species from another.

Reproductive isolation mechanisms limit or prevent gene flow between different species. This causes the allele frequencies of the groups to become more and more different from each other. If the groups do not interbreed for a long period of time, the differences between their alleles become greater because of the differences in their environment (various factors including climate, food sources, and predation). Eventually, the groups will become genetically divergent, forming new species.

This process is illustrated in Figure 4 below. A single species population (teal) splits into two populations (green and blue). The black lines represent gene flow. As we can see in the diagram, the two populations become reproductively isolated, and over time, they become two distinct species.

Reproductive isolation process

Figure 4. This diagram illustrates how reproductive isolation takes place in a population. Source: Andrew Z. Colvin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reproductive isolation helps define the boundaries of the species as a reproductive community and as a gene pool, as well as maintain the cohesion of the species as a genetic system. Reproductive barriers are why members of a species share more similarities with each other than they do with members of other species.

Reproductive Isolation - Key takeaways

  • Reproductive isolation is the inability of sexual organisms to interbreed. Species develop reproductive isolation mechanisms to prevent them from interbreeding with other species.
  • Reproductive isolation mechanisms limit or prevent gene flow between different species. This causes the allele frequencies of the groups to become more and more different from each other. Eventually, they become so genetically divergent that they no longer interbreed. At this point, they have become separate, distinct species.
  • Various types of reproductive isolation mechanisms can be grouped into two broad categories: prezygotic and postzygotic barriers.
    • Prezygotic barriers prevent the formation of the zygote. These include temporal isolation, geographic isolation, behavioral isolation, and gametic barrier.
    • Postzygotic barriers prevent reproduction after the zygote is formed. These lead to hybrid inviability and hybrid sterility.

Reproductive Isolation

3 types of reproductive isolation are geographic isolation, temporal isolation, and behavioral isolation.

Reproductive isolation is the inability of sexual organisms to interbreed.

Reproductive isolation is required for speciation to occur because it is what limits or prevents gene flow between populations, causing allele frequencies to change.

Reproductive isolation mechanisms limit or prevent gene flow between different species. This causes the allele frequencies of the groups to become more and more different from each other. If the groups do not interbreed for a long period of time, the differences between their alleles become greater because of the differences in their environment (various factors including climate, food sources, and predation). Eventually, the groups will become genetically divergent, and new species are formed.

Geography can cause populations to become physically separated hence unable to interbreed.

Final Reproductive Isolation Quiz

Question

What is reproductive isolation?

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Answer

Reproductive isolation is the inability of sexual organisms to interbreed. 

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Question

Why is reproductive isolation central to the biological species concept?

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Answer

The biological species concept defines species as populations whose members interbreed or potentially interbreed with one another and produce viable, fertile offspring. This means that reproductive isolation distinguishes one species from another. 

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How does reproductive isolation affect gene flow between different species?

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Answer

Reproductive isolation mechanisms prevent gene flow between different species.

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Question

What are the two broad categories of reproductive isolation mechanisms?

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Answer

Prezygotic and postzygotic barriers

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Geographic isolation is a _____ barrier.

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Prezygotic

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What is a prezygotic barrier?

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A prezygotic barrier prevents the formation of a zygote.

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What is a postzygotic barrier?

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A postzygotic barrier is a reproductive isolation mechanism that takes effect after the formation of the zygote.

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Gametic barrier is a ____ barrier.

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prezygotic

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What is gametic barrier?

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Gametic barrier refers to differences in gametes that prevent fertilization.

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What is behavioral isolation?

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Behavioral isolation is the absence or mismatch of a specific behavior that is required for mating.

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What is hybrid inviability?

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Hybrid inviability is the inability of a hybrid individual to survive or mature into a healthy adult.

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Hybrid inviability is a ____ barrier.

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postzygotic

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Hybrid sterility is a ____ barrier.

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postzygotic

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What is hybrid sterility?

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Hybrid sterility is the inability of a hybrid individual to produce offspring.

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How does hybridization act as a reproductive isolation mechanism?

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Hybridization may lead to inviable or sterile offspring. In most cases, hybrid individuals cannot reproduce or even survive long enough to reproduce.

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Question

How does reproductive isolation cause speciation?

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Answer

Reproductive isolation mechanisms limit or prevent gene flow between different species. This causes the allele frequencies of the groups to become more and more different from each other, until the groups diverge into new species.

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Why is reproductive isolation required for speciation to occur?

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Reproductive isolation is required for speciation to occur because it is what prevents gene flow between groups, causing alleles in their respective gene pools to change.

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Question

Male fireflies display lights in specific patterns to attract mates. These patterns are unique for each species If a male firefly of one species tried to attract a female firefly of another species, the light pattern used by the male firefly would be unfamiliar to the female firefly, and they would not mate. This is an example of what type of reproductive isolation mechanism?

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Answer

Behavioral isolation

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