Okay, I know some of you are thinking, like me, " Story of my life!
but this here's actually a biology
node, so put on yer spectacles
and get out your field notebook:
In evolutionary biology, reproductive isolation is a set of
circumstances that prevent members of two different species from
interbreeding. Reproductive isolation is one of the main criteria
of the Biological Species Concept -- according to that version of
what makes a species a species, if two populations readily
interbreed, then they should be considered part of the same species.
A number of types of "isolating mechanisms" have
been observed that prevent gene flow between populations in nature:
- Geographical isolation. When two populations aren't in spatial
proximity, they can't interbreed. This alone is not enough to argue
that the populations are in different species, because if they
could interbreed when in the same region, they would still be
considered the same species. However, geographic isolation and the
reduced gene flow it results in can allow two populations to
diverge enough in their genetic makeup that other isolating
- Behavioral isolation. Different behavior patterns in two
populations can keep them reproductively isolated from each other.
There are several forms of this:
- Habitat isolation. If two populations exist in the same region,
but prefer different habitats, they may be sufficiently isolated from
one another to prevent interbreeding.
- Temporal isolation. If members of two populations are active at
different times of the day (e.g., one is active at night, and the
other during the day), or if they breed or flower during different
seasons, this can prevent interbreeding.
- Incompatible mating behaviors can prevent two populations from
interbreeding. For example, the great variety of cichlid species in
Africa's Lake Malawi are probably kept separate due to differences
in their mating rituals, combined with some habitat isolation.
- Mechanical isolation. Differences in sex organs or body shape
and size can prevent mating, thus preventing gene flow between two
populations. For example, the populations of Great Danes and Chihuahuas are , for all practical purposes, reproductively isolated.
- Hybrid inviability. Gene flow between populations can be
prevented if the result of mating between members is an individual
which dies before reaching sexual maturity. This can happen
just after fertilization or later, during the juvenile stage.
- Hybrid sterility. Gene flow can also be prevented if hybrids
between two species are viable, and live a normal lifespan, but
are sterile and incapable of reproducing. For example, mules,
which are the result of mating a horse and a donkey, are sterile;
their sex organs are normal, but they do not produce viable gametes.
In "real life", there are often several of these isolating mechanisms
at work, keeping species apart.
It's also interesting to note that reproductive isolating mechanisms
that work well in nature sometimes fall apart in captivity or when
ecological change occurs. Returning to the example of the Lake Malawi
cichlids, species that would never interbreed in the wild quite often
do so in the aquariums of tropical fish hobbyists.