Niche evolution reveals disparate signatures of speciation in the ‘great speciator’ (white‐eyes, Aves: Zosterops )

Jan O. Engler* (Corresponding Author), Yvonne Lawrie, Juliano S. Cabral, Luc Lens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
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Recent breakthroughs in environmental niche models (ENMs) have substantially improved our insights in niche evolution. Assuming that closely related taxa have similar niches (i.e. niche conservatism), the combination of ENMs with phylogenetic information allows the reconstruction of ancestral niches. This reconstruction helps to identify the underlying speciation processes leading to diversification (i.e. ecological speciation under niche divergence and mutation‐order speciation under niche conservatism). Here, we studied the niche evolution in white‐eyes (the so‐called ‘great speciator’) to understand their extraordinarily fast diversification rate, wide distribution and rather conserved phenotypes. In a broader perspective, unravelling niche evolution in white‐eyes can shed light on how different niche properties such as climate, habitat or trophic level may contribute to diversification.

Asian‐Pacific and Afrotropics.

White‐eyes (Aves, genus: Zosterops).

We selected 10 wide‐ranging taxa that are equally distributed across the genus’ range and phylogeny. We studied niche evolution for a series of thermal and precipitation‐related niche axes separately. We used a time‐calibrated phylogeny encompassing the study taxa and estimated ancestral environmental niches in geographic and environmental niche spaces.

We found that niche evolution in Zosterops is primarily driven by ecological speciation. Thermal niches, in particular, are characterized by a higher level of conservatism, as compared to precipitation‐related niche axes. The fact that the youngest species diverged strongest stands in stark contrast to expectations stemming from niche conservatism.

Main conclusions
Contrasting evolutionary patterns in different niche axes suggest different underlying evolutionary pressures. Hence, future studies on niche evolution should take possible disparities between niche axes into account
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1981-1993
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number8
Early online date8 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

J.O.E. and L.L. coordinated and secured project funding with the support from J.S.C.; we thank AT Peterson and CH Graham and two reviewers for critical feedback on earlier stages of the manuscript. The project was funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO; 1527918N & G042318N). J.O.E. received additional funds by an FWO Postdoctoral Fellowship (12G4317N). The authors declare no conflict of interest. No permits were needed to conduct the re- search presented here.

All data are available from open source platforms. Raw occurrence data used for this work (as accessed on 21st October 2016) can be accessed through GBIF Occurrence Download We have deposited the prepared data used for this work on FigShare accessible through as well as R scripts for data analysis in a GitHub repository accessible through


  • ecological niche modelling
  • ecological speciation
  • Eltonian niche
  • great speciator
  • Grinnelian niche
  • mutation-order speciation
  • niche evolution
  • Species distribution modelling


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