It has traditionally been assumed that speciation occurs when gene flow between populations ceases. However, nothing in biology ever remains simple — the more we study any biological phenomenon the more complex it becomes. So, speciation with gene flow is becoming a more commonly discussed topic. This is especially so with the advent of genome sequencing, which allows us to study the extent of gene flow in the past, rather than solely in the present.
A case in point is the recent paper by:
Vikas Kumar, Fritjof Lammers, Tobias Bidon, Markus Pfenninger, Lydia Kolter, Maria A. Nilsson and Axel Janke (2017) The evolutionary history of bears is characterized by gene flow across species. Nature Scientific Reports 7: 46487.This paper considers the evolutionary relationships among seven species of bears, with multiple genome samples from four of those species. The coalescent species tree (based on 18,621 genome fragments > 25 kb), which accounts for incomplete lineage sorting (ILS), is well supported, as shown here.
However, numerous individual genome-fragment trees support alternative topologies. For example, 38% of the trees support a topology where the Asiatic black bear is the sister to the American black - Brown - Polar bear clade. This suggests that there is more than simply ILS that creates the conflicting genome trees.
The authors applied several different data analyses to investigate the possibility of gene flow among the species. They found considerable evidence for gene flow, as shown in the network (the arrow colors represent different analyses).
Indeed, each of the six in-group species could conceivably be connected by gene flow to each of the other five species. The network shows evidence that the Brown, Asiatic and Sloth bears might have all five connections, while the Polar and Sun bears have four, and the American bear has three.
As the authors note, some of this potential gene flow cannot have occurred directly between species, because they live in different habitats. Instead, it may be remnants of ancestral gene flow, or gene flow through a vector species. In particular, the strongest signal of gene flow connects the Asiatic black bear with the ancestor of the American black - Brown - Polar bear clade.
Ancestral gene flow is of considerable importance when studying evolution. Charles Darwin was perhaps the first to note (in his notebooks) that we should always treat ancestors as species not as taxonomic groups, no matter how big the groups of descendants now are. Whole kingdoms and phyla were once a single species, if the contemporary groups are monophyletic