When reading recent methodological papers, review articles, or publications on my study group I sometimes add to the mix the odd paper that is not directly relevant for my work and maybe not even very recent but which is relevant to my broader interests. In this case I decided to take a look at Heads 2009, Inferring biogeographic history from molecular phylogenies, Biol J Linn Soc 98: 757-774.
Michael Heads is perhaps the most published proponent of Vicariance Biogeography, the school of biogeography that rejects speciation following long-distance dispersal (LDD) because... and that is where it gets interesting, because I still find that rejection puzzling. To the best of my understanding at least some vicariance biogeographers consider the conclusion of LDD to be unscientific because they believe it can explain any possible contemporary range, on the lines of 'if your hypothesis can explain every observation it explains nothing'. This does not make sense to me, because LDD would still be more or less plausible depending on the dating of cladogenesis events relative to tektonic events or island ages, prevailing wind and water currents, dispersal ecology, and many other factors. It also seems rather more unscientific to reject a possible explanation a priori, regardless of any evidence in its favour. But to get a better understanding of the arguments of vicariance biogeographers is precisely my reason for picking up this paper. So, on with it.
In a section titled "critique of founder dispersal in population genetic studies", Heads first describes the concept as "the founder individual has been isolated from its parent population by dispersing over a barrier (an apparent contradiction)". Right out of the gate this seems odd. I may be missing something, but it appears as if Heads would accept only extremes: either there is a barrier, meaning zero dispersal, or there is none, meaning panmixis. I have previously observed similar arguments in other papers from the vicariance school.
Assume I have a garden with a fence around it, and then one day a cat jumps over it. Does this mean I have no barrier around the garden? Of course not, it may still have kept various stray dogs and neighbours' children out. On the other hand, it was never a barrier to birds or insects. The same in biogeography. No barrier on this planet is absolute, and each barrier has a different force for different groups of organisms. A channel that is near-insurmountable to a monkey may be crossed by insects if blown over by a strong enough storm, and it may be no barrier at all to fern spores. Perhaps even more importantly, dispersal is a stochastic process. The Atlantic Ocean did not keep all cacti from crossing (Rhipsalis made it over to Africa), but it kept the seeds of >99.9% of them away, so it is still a barrier even if not an absolute one.
Beyond that the argument of the section relies on citing five papers that "failed to corroborate predictions of founder effect speciation", of which one is missing from the reference list. I checked three of the remaining four papers, and in all cases they are experiments on fruit flies limited to time frames on the order of ten years and designed to test the very narrow question whether severe population bottlenecks will cause pre-mating isolation. Now I may completely have misunderstood the claim made by mainstream biogeographers regarding founder speciation, but I believe it was not "ten years after an organism has dispersed to an island it will have achieved biological pre-mating isolation". The way I understand it the claim is more on the lines of the large distance from the parental population producing geographic pre-mating isolation, which enables speciation to take place subsequently. The point is not the speed with which the new population evolves (although that is an exciting research question in itself) but rather that it has become geographically isolated.
The argument consequently seems to miss the point. If there is a problem for founder speciation then it would be whether a single pregnant female or a single seed can establish a viable population. Potential problems are inbreeding and, in plants that have such features, self-incompatibility systems that cause failure to set seed. But if a population establishes, helped perhaps by herbivore release and lack of competition, subsequent speciation is not an extraordinary claim. It really does not matter if isolation has been achieved by vicariance or by LDD, the subsequent process of divergence is the same except the latter will also cause a genetic bottleneck.
The section "critique of founder dispersal in biogeographic studies" points out that there is good evidence for similar vicariance patters in many taxa. I am unaware of anybody who denies that vicariance is an important process - but it does not logically follow that LDD is therefor implausible. I can agree that a lot of white swans exist without therefore having to believe that black ones cannot possibly exist.
This is followed by "founder dispersal and new ideas on rift tectonics", where the idea seems to be that seemingly young oceanic islands do not require LDD to be colonised because they kind of have always been there. It is not entirely clear to me if the claim is that the individual islands are all much older than the oldest still observable lava flows or if, as implied by the reference to "seamounts", the local species would have constantly hopped from one short-lived and now submerged island to the next. If the first, it seems rather ad-hoc; if the second, one wonders why species that can so easily jump ten times from one disappearing island to the next island in the chain cannot simply jump a single time from continent to island. What is the more parsimonious conclusion here?
Next, molecular clocks and time calibration of phylogenies are rejected. All inferences, be it from fossils but in particular from geological events such as the formation of the isthmus of Panama, are dismissed as unreliable, but apparently present distributions are reliable evidence of ancestral distributions. Unfortunately I remain anti-convinced.
To quote the following paragraph in full:
"In Ronquist's (1997) method of dispersal-vicariance analysis, inferences of dispersal events are minimized as they attract a 'cost'. Extinction also attracts a cost but vicariance does not. It was not explained why this approach was taken and it appears to be based on a confusion of the two different concepts of 'dispersal'. Ecological dispersal in the sense of ordinary movement should not attract any cost in any model; founder dispersal would attract no cost in a traditional dispersalist model, but, in a vicariance model of speciation or evolution, it is rejected a priori."
What Heads does here is reject a formal parsimony-based inference of ancestral ranges in favour of, to judge from the second half of the paper, an informal, intuitive, pencil-on-a-map deduction process. What does he not like about Dispersal-Vicariance Analysis (DIVA)? Apparently primarily that dispersal events have a parsimony cost. It may be that he did not contemplate how such an analysis would work or if it could even work at all, if the only process having a cost would be extinction - of course it would mean that dispersal would be much too 'cheap', and every single ancestral species would always be inferred to have occupied the union of the ranges of its two descendants.
The great irony here is that even with a dispersal cost DIVA is well known for mercilessly (and implausibly) favouring vicariance as a process. I ran that analysis on two or three data sets a few years ago, and unless one restricts the maximum range size of ancestral species to something biologically plausible one pretty much always ends up with the vicariance biogeographers' preferred conclusion: the ancestor of the study group was already everywhere where any of its descendants occur today.
The second part of the paper is taken up by a large number of case studies, taxa which have sometimes been suggested to have undergone LDD but for which Heads presents a vicariance explanation instead. Some of these I find more plausible than others, but I do not want to go into each of them in detail. Instead, it seems more efficient to discuss what I see as three problems running through the entire argumentation:
First, there seems to be a lot of ad-hoccery going on. Where necessary to arrive at the conclusion of vicariance, for example to explain the overlapping distributions of African Arctotideae, 'normal ecological' range expansion is invoked as common and easy. But where necessary to arrive at the conclusion of vicariance, for example when distantly related subclades of a taxon occur right next to each other in Tasmania or New Zealand (suggesting relatively recent LDD from elsewhere), they are assumed to have been sitting in these narrow localities for tens of millions of years, apparently unable to move at all, so that a very ancient vicariance event can have taken place between their present ranges. Is that not rather convenient?
Which brings me to the second point. The text presenting the case studies certainly uses words like "may" and "might" a lot. To be honest, I sometimes found myself reminded of Erich von Daniken, whose style was to the effect of "the traditional explanation is that the pyramids were build by the ancient Egyptians - but could it not have been extra-terrestrials?" Yes, in each of these cases vicariance (or extra-terrestrials) could be the explanation. But mere possibility is a low hurdle to clear; the real question is, is that the most plausible explanation?
Third, as always with vicariance- or panbiogeography the problem is that dispersal is still required. Somehow this taxon here must have reached this volcanic island, somehow that taxon there must have spread all over the world. How does the vicariance biogeographer arrive at contemporary ranges without invoking jumps across oceans? Partly by hiding the dispersal away before the start of the analysis. To quote the present paper, "assuming a worldwide ancestor..." Well, if we can just assume that at our leisure it becomes easy to conclude few dispersal events, long distance or otherwise.
Now quite apart from the question whether a single species occurring worldwide is biologically realistic for all groups of organisms (I'd say it isn't), the problem remains that we have a lot of nested groups that would all have to have been ancestrally cosmopolitan, requiring several global range expansions in between. The daisy family is an excellent example. With reference to them, Heads writes that "through the history of the family as a whole, only a small number of widespread ancestors may have existed (groups such as Senecioneae and Astereae each require their own global ancestor)." I think that is a wee bit of an underestimate.
To walk through just one example in order of containing taxon to subordinate taxon: The Asteraceae family is cosmopolitan. The Asteroideae subfamily is cosmopolitan. The Astereae tribe is cosmopolitan. And the genus Conyza is cosmopolitan. If vicariance is the explanation for all speciation events we still need at least four consecutive cases of spreading across all continents. The same applies to a large number of the other tribes in the family: yes, that includes the aforementioned Senecioneae, but also Gnaphalieae, Anthemideae, Heliantheae, Cichorieae, Cardueae, Inuleae, and Vernonieae. And several of these include genera occurring across several continents or even (as with Senecio) all of them except Antarctica.
There is certainly a lot of dispersal required to explain that even in a vicariance approach, and unless we assume that most speciation in these groups took place before the breakup of Pangaea 175 million years ago (meaning the early dinosaurs would have known many of the same daisies as we do now, tens of millions of years before the oldest estimates for the origin of the daisy family) we will have to assume that some of that dispersal was long-distance.
Why not simply accept that organisms can sometimes, rarely but often enough to matter, cross an ocean and establish on the other side, followed by speciation? What is is so extraordinary about that conclusion, really? What is so different about it compared to being separated by vicariance, followed by speciation? I am still puzzled.