Theory predicts that speciation can be quite rapid. Previous examples comprise a wide range of organisms such as sockeye salmon, polyploid hybrid plants, fruit flies and cichlid fishes. However, few studies have shown natural examples of rapid evolution giving rise to new species in marine environments.
Using microsatellite markers, we show the evolution of a new species of brown macroalga ( Fucus radicans) in the Baltic Sea in the last 400 years, well after the formation of this brackish water body ~8–10 thousand years ago. Sympatric individuals of F. radicans and F. vesiculosus (bladder wrack) show significant reproductive isolation. Fucus radicans, which is endemic to the Baltic, is most closely related to Baltic Sea F. vesiculosus among north Atlantic populations, supporting the hypothesis of a recent divergence. Fucus radicans exhibits considerable clonal reproduction, probably induced by the extreme conditions of the Baltic. This reproductive mode is likely to have facilitated the rapid foundation of the new taxon.
This study represents an unparalleled example of rapid speciation in a species-poor open marine ecosystem and highlights the importance of increasing our understanding on the role of these habitats in species formation. This observation also challenges presumptions that rapid speciation takes place only in hybrid plants or in relatively confined geographical places such as postglacial or crater lakes, oceanic islands or rivers.