Integrating Hybrid Zone Analyses in Species Delimitation: Lessons From Two Anuran Radiations of the Western Mediterranean

Heredity (Edinb). 2020 Mar;124(3):423-438. doi: 10.1038/s41437-020-0294-z. Epub 2020 Jan 20.


Molecular ecologists often rely on phylogenetic evidence for assessing the species-level systematics of newly discovered lineages. Alternatively, the extent of introgression at phylogeographic transitions can provide a more direct test to assign candidate taxa into subspecies or species categories. Here, we compared phylogenetic versus hybrid zone approaches of species delimitation in two groups of frogs from the Western Mediterranean region (Discoglossus and Pelodytes), by using genomic data (ddRAD). In both genera, coalescent analyses recovered almost all nominal taxa as "species". However, the least-diverged pairs D. g. galganoi/jeanneae and P. punctatus/hespericus admix over hundreds of kilometers, suggesting that they have not yet developed strong reproductive isolation and should be treated as conspecifics. In contrast, the comparatively older D. scovazzi/pictus and P. atlanticus/ibericus form narrow contact zones, consistent with species distinctiveness. Due to their complementarity, we recommend taxonomists to combine phylogenomics with hybrid zone analyses to scale the gray zone of speciation, i.e., the evolutionary window separating widely admixing lineages versus nascent reproductively isolated species. The radically different transitions documented here conform to the view that genetic incompatibilities accumulating with divergence generate a weak barrier to gene flow for long periods of time, until their effects multiply and the speciation process then advances rapidly. Given the variability of the gray zone among taxonomic groups, at least from our current abilities to measure it, we recommend to customize divergence thresholds within radiations to categorize lineages for which no direct test of speciation is possible.