The reality and importance of founder speciation in evolution



A founder event occurs when a new population is established from a small number of individuals drawn from a large ancestral population. Mayr proposed that genetic drift in an isolated founder population could alter the selective forces in an epistatic system, an observation supported by recent studies. Carson argued that a period of relaxed selection could occur when a founder population is in an open ecological niche, allowing rapid population growth after the founder event. Selectable genetic variation can actually increase during this founder-flush phase due to recombination, enhanced survival of advantageous mutations, and the conversion of non-additive genetic variance into additive variance in an epistatic system, another empirically confirmed prediction. Templeton combined the theories of Mayr and Carson with population genetic models to predict the conditions under which founder events can contribute to speciation, and these predictions are strongly confirmed by the empirical literature. Much of the criticism of founder speciation is based upon equating founder speciation to an adaptive peak shift opposed by selection. However, Mayr, Carson and Templeton all modeled a positive interaction of selection and drift, and Templeton showed that founder speciation is incompatible with peak-shift conditions. Although rare, founder speciation can have a disproportionate importance in adaptive innovation and radiation, and examples are given to show that “rare” does not mean “unimportant” in evolution. Founder speciation also interacts with other speciation mechanisms such that a speciation event is not a one-dimensional process due to either selection alone or drift alone. BioEssays 30:470–479, 2008. © 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.