The biological definition of species, which works for sexually reproducing organisms, is a group of actually or potentially interbreeding individuals. There are exceptions to this rule. Many species are similar enough that hybrid offspring are possible and may often occur in nature, but for the majority of species this rule generally holds. In fact, the presence in nature of hybrids between similar species suggests that they may have descended from a single interbreeding species, and the speciation process may not yet be completed.
Given the extraordinary diversity of life on the planet there must be mechanisms for speciation: the formation of two species from one original species. Darwin envisioned this process as a branching event and diagrammed the process in the only illustration found in On theOrigin of Species (see figure (a) below). Compare this illustration to the diagram of elephant evolution (see figure (b) below), which shows that as one species changes over time, it branches to form more than one new species, repeatedly, as long as the population survives or until the organism becomes extinct.
For speciation to occur, two new populations must be formed from one original population and they must evolve in such a way that it becomes impossible for individuals from the two new populations to interbreed. Biologists have proposed mechanisms by which this could occur that fall into two broad categories. Allopatric speciation (allo- = “other”; -patric = “homeland”) involves geographic separation of populations from a parent species and subsequent evolution. Sympatric speciation (sym- = “same”; -patric = “homeland”) involves speciation occurring within a parent species remaining in one location.
Biologists think of speciation events as the splitting of one ancestral species into two descendant species. There is no reason why there might not be more than two species formed at one time except that it is less likely and multiple events can be conceptualized as single splits occurring close in time.