“Reader request”, what’s going on with this new crazy baleen whale paper, Whole-genome sequencing of the blue whale and other rorquals finds signatures for introgressive gene flow. First, putting “blue whale” in the title is genius, since blue whales are awesome and people will read the paper with that in the title (most people don’t know what “rorquals” are). Second, this paper was interesting because it highlighted the importance of thinking across different ecologies when attempting to understand evolutionary processes.
Since I don’t think too much about speciation, a lot of my thought is derived from the fifteen-year-old book Speciation (good book, too bad it doesn’t seem to be in print anymore!). The authors of Speciation are evolutionary geneticists and emphasize allopatric speciation and the biological species concept. They’re instrumentalists. Basically, you separate populations and they eventually diverge until they’re no longer interfertile. Then you get species.
The problem is that in the oceans allopatric speciation isn’t as straightforward, the seas are open three-dimensional spaces after all. This opens up the likelihood that a lot of oceanic speciation is sympatric speciation (think cichlid fish). Something like this seems to apply to large non-toothed whales in this study.
Though the gray whale is phenotypically very distinct from others in the study above, it turns out that phylogenetically they are within the rorqual clade. The authors suggest that the gray whale distinctiveness is a function of adaptation to a benthic lifestyle. They’re bottom feeders.
The topology at the top of this post illustrates that there seems to have been a lot of complexity and gene flow as the rorquals diverged early on so that it’s not really a simple bifurcating phylogenetic tree. We’ve seen this story before. Remember Genetic evidence for complex speciation of humans and chimpanzees?
I think the moral of the story is that large mammalian species which are the basis of the biological species concept don’t really fit under that paradigm too easily. Even this study is probably not going to be the last word on rorqual phylogenetics.