A while ago I read about this bird(s) whose species status was not confirmed. This was because they had a very large distribution and birds in adjacent population could breed with each other but birds at each end of the distribution (western Europe and South Asia I think) couldn't. I am pretty sure that they were some kind of gull and from Europe to Asia their wings got lighter, from black to grey. I think I might have read about them in a Richard Dawkins book.

Does anyone know the species I'm talking about?

  • $\begingroup$ Do you have an image of that bird, and some more specifications? $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2017 at 13:42

1 Answer 1


You're describing a Ring Species: "a connected series of neighbouring populations, each of which can interbreed with closely sited related populations, but for which there exist at least two "end" populations in the series, which are too distantly related to interbreed, though there is a potential gene flow between each "linked" population".

The classic ring species is the Herring Gull complex, and that's probably what you read about:

The classical example of the ring species model was originally based upon the herring gull complex (Mayr 1942). This group comprises more than 20 taxa of large gulls (Haffer 1982) which together occupy a circumpolar breeding range in the northern hemisphere. ... Mayr envisioned all taxa of the circumpolar chain to be connected by gene flow, while herring and lesser black-backed gulls in Europe, the hypothetical endpoints of the ring, have reached full reproductive isolation and now coexist as distinct species.

--The Herring Gull Complex (Larus argentatus - fuscus - cachinnans) as a Model Group for Recent Holarctic Vertebrate Radiations

However, recent genetic work shows that the situation is even more complicated than this, and it's questionable whether they really are "ring species":

Contrary to the ring-species model, we find no genetic evidence for a closure of the circumpolar ring through colonization of Europe by North American herring gulls. However, closure of the ring in the opposite direction may be imminent, with lesser black-backed gulls about to colonize North America.

--The herring gull complex is not a ring species.


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