Background: Saltational evolution in which a particular lineage undergoes relatively rapid, significant, and unparalleled change as compared with its closest relatives is rarely invoked as an alternative model to the dominant paradigm of gradualistic evolution. Identifying saltational events is an important first-step in assessing the importance of this discontinuous model in generating evolutionary novelty. We offer evidence for three independent instances of saltational evolution in a charismatic moth genus with only eight species.
Methodology/principal findings: Maximum parsimony, maximum likelihood and Bayesian search criteria offered congruent, well supported phylogenies based on 1,965 base pairs of DNA sequence using the mitochondrial gene cytochrome oxidase subunit I, and the nuclear genes elongation factor-1 alpha and wingless. Using a comparative methods approach, we examined three taxa exhibiting novelty in the form of Batesian mimicry, host plant shift, and dramatic physiological differences in light of the phylogenetic data. All three traits appear to have evolved relatively rapidly and independently in three different species of Proserpinus. Each saltational species exhibits a markedly different and discrete example of discontinuous trait evolution while remaining canalized for other typical traits shared by the rest of the genus. All three saltational taxa show insignificantly different levels of overall genetic change as compared with their congeners, implying that their divergence is targeted to particular traits and not genome-wide.
Conclusions/significance: Such rapid evolution of novel traits in individual species suggests that the pace of evolution can be quick, dramatic, and isolated--even on the species level. These results may be applicable to other groups in which specific taxa have generated pronounced evolutionary novelty. Genetic mechanisms and methods for assessing such relatively rapid changes are postulated.