Background: The endemic Hawaiian drosophilids, a unique group that are remarkable for their diversity and rapid proliferation, provide a model for analysis of the process of insular speciation. Founder events and accompanying random drift, together with shifts in sexual selection, appear to explain the dramatic divergence in male morphology and mating behaviour among these flies, but these forces do not account for their spectacular ecological diversification into a wide array of breeding niches. Although recognized as contributing to the success of this group, the precise role of adaptive shifts has not been well defined.
Results: To delineate the pattern of ecological diversification in the evolution of Hawaiian Drosophila, we generated a molecular phylogeny, using nucleotide sequences from the yolk protein gene Yp1, of 42 endemic Hawaiian and 5 continental species. By mapping ecological characters onto this phylogeny, we demonstrate that monophagy is the primitive condition, and that decaying leaves were the initial substrate for oviposition and larval development. Shifts to decaying stems, bark and tree fluxes followed in more derived species. By plotting female reproductive strategies, as reflected in ovarian developmental type, on the molecular tree, we also demonstrate a phylogenetic trend toward increasing fecundity. We find some statistical support for correlations between ecological shifts and shifts in female reproductive strategies.
Conclusions: Because of the short branches at the base of the phylogram, which lead to ecologically diverse lineages, we conclude that much of the adaptive radiation into alternate breeding substrates occurred rapidly, early in the group's evolution in Hawaii. Furthermore, we conclude that this ecological divergence and the correlated changes in ovarian patterns that adapt species to their ecological habitats were contributing factors in the major phyletic branching within the Hawaiian drosophilid fauna.