- Speciation with gene flow, or the evolution of reproductive isolation between interbreeding populations, remains a controversial problem in evolution. This is because gene flow erodes the adaptive differences that selection creates between populations.
- Here, we use a combination of common garden experiments in the field and in the glasshouse to investigate what ecological and genetic mechanisms prevent gene flow and maintain morphological and genetic differentiation between coastal parapatric populations of the Australian groundsel Senecio lautus.
- We discovered that in each habitat extrinsic reproductive barriers prevented gene flow, whereas intrinsic barriers in F1 hybrids were weak. In the field, herbivores played a major role in preventing gene flow, but glasshouse experiments demonstrated that soil type also created variable selective pressures both locally and on a greater geographic scale.
- Our experimental results demonstrate that interfertile plant populations adapting to contrasting environments may diverge as a consequence of concurrent natural selection acting against migrants and hybrids through multiple mechanisms. These results provide novel insights into the consequences of local adaptation in the origin of strong barriers to gene flow in plants, and suggest that herbivory may play an important role in the early stages of plant speciation.