Absolute barriers to dispersal are not common in marine systems, and the prevalence of planktonic larvae in marine taxa provides potential for gene flow across large geographic distances. These observations raise the fundamental question in marine evolutionary biology as to whether geographic and oceanographic barriers alone can account for the high levels of species diversity observed in marine environments such as coral reefs, or whether marine speciation also operates in the presence of gene flow between diverging populations. In this respect, the ecological hypothesis of speciation, in which reproductive isolation results from divergent or disruptive natural selection, is of particular interest because it may operate in the presence of gene flow. Although important insights into the process of ecological speciation in aquatic environments have been provided by the study of freshwater fishes, comparatively little is known about the possibility of ecological speciation in marine teleosts. In this study, the evidence consistent with different aspects of the ecological hypothesis of speciation is evaluated in marine fishes. Molecular approaches have played a critical role in the development of speciation hypotheses in marine fishes, with a role of ecology suggested by the occurrence of sister clades separated by ecological factors, rapid cladogenesis or the persistence of genetically and ecologically differentiated species in the presence of gene flow. Yet, ecological speciation research in marine fishes is still largely at an exploratory stage. Cases where the major ingredients of ecological speciation, namely a source of natural divergent or disruptive selection, a mechanism of reproductive isolation and a link between the two have been explicitly documented are few. Even in these cases, specific predictions of the ecological hypothesis of speciation remain largely untested. Recent developments in the study of freshwater fishes illustrate the potential for molecular approaches to address specific questions related to the ecological hypothesis of speciation such as the nature of the genes underlying key ecological traits, the magnitude of their effect on phenotype and the mechanisms underlying their differential expression in different ecological contexts. The potential provided by molecular studies is fully realized when they are complemented with alternative (e.g. ecological, theoretical) approaches.
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