Hybrid viability decreases with divergence time, a pattern consistent with a so-called speciation clock. However, the actual rate at which this clock ticks is poorly known. Most speciation-clock studies have used genetic divergence as a proxy for time, adopting a molecular clock and often far-distant calibration points to convert genetic distances into age. Because molecular clock assumptions are violated for most genetic datasets and distant calibrations are of questionable utility, the actual rate at which reproductive isolation evolves may be substantially different than current estimates suggest. We provide a robust measure of the tempo at which hybrid viability declines with divergence time in a clade of freshwater fishes (Centrarchidae). This incompatibility clock is distinct from a speciation clock because speciation events in centrarchids appear to be driven largely by prezygotic isolation. Our analyses used divergence times estimated with penalized likelihood applied to a phylogeny derived from seven gene regions and calibrated with six centrarchid fossils. We found that hybrid embryo viability declined at mean rate of 3.13% per million years, slower than in most other taxa investigated to date. Despite measurement error in both molecular estimated ages and hatching success of hybrid crosses, divergence time explained between 73% and 90% of the variation in hybrid viability among nodes. This high correlation is consistent with the gradual accumulation of many genetic incompatibilities of small effect. Hybrid viability declined with the square of time, consistent with an increasing rate of accumulation of incompatibilities between divergent genomes (the snowball effect). However, the quadratic slope is due to a lag phase resulting from heterosis among young species pairs, a phenomenon rarely considered in predictions of hybrid fitness. Finally, we found that reciprocal crosses often show asymmetrical hybrid viabilities. We discuss several alternative explanations for this result including possible deleterious cytonuclear interactions. Speciation-clock studies have been a small cottage industry recently, but there are still novel insights to be gained from analyses of more taxonomic groups. However, between-group comparisons require more careful molecular-clock calibration than has been the norm.
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Vol. 59 • No. 8