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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Catching the species in the act of being born

My Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal on 1 January 2012 is here:


Here's a New Year's thought. With some nine million species on the planet, and with each species lasting a million years on average, about nine species will go extinct naturally this coming year (with more, almost certainly, going extinct unnaturally). But about nine new species also will be born in 2012.

Biologists have long dreamed of catching a new species in the act of forming. The problem, of course, is the time scale-and the fact that most species are little-known beetles and bugs. New species form constantly, but they take huge stretches of time to do so. The actual moment when a "daughter" species can (or will) no longer cross-breed with the population from which it sprang (the definition of speciation) is almost impossible to pinpoint, let alone to witness.

The best that evolutionary biologists can do is usually to point to groups of species that have plainly diversified recently, usually on a group of islands. The finches of the Galapagos, known as Darwin's finches, are the best known example, a single ancestral species from South America having given rise to 15 specialized forms in just the last two million years. More impressively, the cichlid fishes of Lake Victoria have generated 500 forms in about 14,000 years (lakes are islands of water).

Now scientists have described a group of continental, rather than island, bird species that seem to be in the process of forming new species. The southern capuchinos are nine species of small seed-eating birds in South America (a missing "p" and a substituted "h" separating their name from that of frothy Italian coffee). Though the brown females are similar to each other, the males wear strikingly different colors and sing quite distinct songs.

Yet, beneath the genetic surface, the nine species of southern capuchino do not look like different species at all. Their genetic "bar codes," based on DNA sequences unrelated to appearance or song, completely overlap-meaning that the species cannot be identified from genetic fingerprinting. It is as if they are one big species with lots of differently colored males.

Still, the species do lead fairly separate lives. Though capable of hybridizing, they plainly do not do so much. The explanation for this paradox, put forward by Leonardo Campagna of the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences, is that they are incipient species, separated by the mating preferences of females but not yet by genetics.

Mr. Campagna and his colleagues argue that at some time in the past few hundred thousand years, during a part of the ice age when much of South America was covered with grasslands, an ancestral species of capuchino expanded rapidly across the continent. When warmer and wetter conditions returned, the birds became isolated in several islands of grass in a sea of forest. Each "island" developed its own idiosyncratic plumage and song. Now the species encounter each other again, but this time as distinct forms.

The starlings and sparrows that Europeans brought to North America may one day evolve sufficient differences from those left behind in Europe that they will constitute separate species. Given enough time, town pigeons in New York may one day be averse to cohabiting with town pigeons in San Francisco.

Initially, at least, this "man-made" biodiversity will be far too small and slow to compensate for man-made extinctions, but it's worth noting the possibility.