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to the same species or at least that they are capable of being linked genetically to them through chains of other breeding individuals. By definition they do not breed freely with members of other species.
This biological concept of species is the best ever devised, but it remains less than ideal. It works very well for most animals and some kinds of plants, but for some plant and a few animal populations in which intermediate amounts of hybridization occur, or ordinary sexual reproduction has been replaced by self-fertilization or parthenogenesis, it must be replaced with arbitrary divisions.
New species are usually created in one or the other of two ways. A large minority of plant species came into existence in essentially one step, through the process of polyploidy. This is a simple multiplication in the number of gene-bearing chromosomes—sometimes within a preexisting species and sometimes in hybrids between two species. Polyploids are typically not able to form fertile hybrids with the parent species. A second major process is geographic speciation and takes much longer. It starts when a single population (or series of populations) is divided by some barrier extrinsic to the organisms, such as a river, a mountain range, or an arm of the sea. The isolated populations then diverge from each other in evolution because of the inevitable differences of the environments in which they find themselves. Since all populations evolve when given enough time, divergence between all extrinsically isolated populations must eventually occur. By this process alone the populations can acquire enough differences to reduce interbreeding between them should the extrinsic barrier between them be removed and the populations again come into contact. If sufficient differences have accumulated, the populations can coexist as newly formed species. If those differences have not yet occurred, the populations will resume the exchange of genes when the contact is renewed.
Species diversity has been maintained at an approximately even level or at most a slowly increasing rate, although punctuated by brief periods of accelerated extinction every few tens of millions of years. The more similar the species under consideration, the more consistent the balance. Thus within clusters of islands, the numbers of species of birds (or reptiles, or ants, or other equivalent groups) found on each island in turn increases approximately as the fourth root of the area of the island. In other words, the number of species can be predicted as a constant X (island area)0.25, where the exponent can deviate according to circumstances, but in most cases it falls between 0.15 and 0.35. According to this theory of island biogeography, in a typical case (where the exponent is at or near 0.25) the rule of thumb is that a 10-fold increase in area results in a doubling of a number of species (MacArthur and Wilson, 1967).
In a recent study of the ants of Hispaniola, I found fossils of 37 genera (clusters of species related to each other but distinct from other such clusters) in amber from the Miocene age—about 20 million years old. Exactly 37 genera exist on the island today. However, 15 of the original 37 have become extinct, while 15 others not present in the Miocene deposits have invaded to replace them, thus sustaining the original diversity (Wilson, 1985b).
On a grander scale, families—clusters of genera—have also maintained a balance within the faunas of entire continents. For example, a reciprocal and apparently symmetrical exchange of land mammals between North and South America began