Howea palms are viewed as one of the most clear-cut cases of speciation in sympatry. The sister species H. belmoreana and H. forsteriana are endemic to the oceanic Lord Howe Island, Australia, where they have overlapping distributions and are reproductively isolated mainly by flowering time differences. However, the potential role of introgression from Australian mainland relatives had not previously been investigated, a process that has recently put other examples of sympatric speciation into question. Furthermore, the drivers of flowering time-based reproductive isolation remain unclear. We sequenced an RNA-seq dataset that comprehensively sampled Howea and their closest mainland relatives (Linospadix, Laccospadix), and collected detailed soil chemistry data on Lord Howe Island to evaluate whether secondary gene flow had taken place and to examine the role of soil preference in speciation. D-statistics analyses strongly support a scenario whereby ancestral Howea hybridised frequently with its mainland relatives, but this only occurred prior to speciation. Expression analysis, population genetic and phylogenetic tests of selection, identified several flowering time genes with evidence of adaptive divergence between the Howea species. We found expression plasticity in flowering time genes in response to soil chemistry as well as adaptive expression and sequence divergence in genes pleiotropically linked to soil adaptation and flowering time. Ancestral hybridisation may have provided the genetic diversity that promoted their subsequent adaptive divergence and speciation, a process that may be common for rapid ecological speciation.
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