Sympatric speciation in phytophagous insects: Moving beyond controversy?

Stewart H. Berlocher, Jeffrey L. Feder

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Sympatric speciation is the splitting of one evolutionary lineage into two without the occurrence of geographic isolation. The concept has been intimately tied to entomology since the 1860s, when Benjamin Walsh proposed that many host-specific phytophagous insects originate by shifting and adapting to new host plant species. If true, sympatric speciation would have tremendous implications for our understanding of species and their origins, biodiversity (25-40% of all animals are thought to be phytophagous specialists), insect-plant coevolution, community ecology, phylogenetics, and systematics, as well as practical significance for the management of insect pests. During much of the twentieth century sympatric speciation was viewed as much less plausible than geographic (allopatric) speciation. However, empirical field studies, laboratory experiments, developments in population genetics theory, and phylogenetic and biogeographic data have all recently combined to shed a more favorable light on the process. We review the evidence for sympatric speciation via host shifting for phytophagous insects and propose a set of testable predictions for distinguishing geographic mode (allopatric versus sympatric) of divergence. Our conclusion is that sympatric speciation is a viable hypothesis. We highlight areas where more thorough testing is needed to move sympatric speciation into the realm of accepted scientific theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)773-815
Number of pages43
JournalAnnual Review of Entomology
StatePublished - 2002


  • Evolution
  • Host race
  • Insect-plant interactions
  • Speciation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Insect Science


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