One of the central hypotheses about how the diversity of life is generated is known as “adaptive radiation“. This term, popularized by G.G. Simpson in the mid 20th century, encapsulates an idea that is relatively easy to grasp: that the spectacular arrays of morphological and species diversity that we observe in the world are often the result of great bursts of speciation and morphological change. These bursts occur because a single species colonizes a new area, acquires a new adaptation, or suddenly escapes its competitors or natural enemies (possibly by their extinction). This opens up a new universe of possible lifestyles that evolution then drives that species to take up by rapid diversification. Think of the Hawaiian honeycreepers or Darwin’s finches.
The idea holds great sway because it is simple and powerful, but testing it empirically has proven very difficult. This is in part because the actual mechanisms underlying speciation and morphological diversification are exceedingly complex, and in part because many of the groups of organisms which we suspect have adaptively radiated did so long ago, leaving much of the evidence of those mechanisms buried under millions of years of subsequent evolutionary change. A recent experiment by Martin and Wainwright (2013) attacks these issues by manipulating a nascent adaptive radiation of Cyprinodon pupfishes on the island of San Salvador, Bahamas.
Cyprinodon are small fishes that have a habit of becoming isolated in unexpected places. In the United States they are best known for tentatively clinging to life in tiny springs in deserts of the southwest, where they’ve been embroiled in conflicts between conservation and urban and industrial interests over water rights. Almost all of them are dietary generalists that tend to eat a lot of algae. Martin and Wainwright’s study focused on three species that occur in another such unexpectedly isolated locale, a pair of hypersaline lakes on the island of San Salvador, Bahamas.