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Open Access Research article

Ecological and genetic divergence between two lineages of Middle American túngara frogs Physalaemus (= Engystomops) pustulosus

Heike Pröhl134*, Santiago R Ron2 and Michael J Ryan34

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Zoology, University of Veterinary Medicine, Bünteweg 17, 30559 Hannover, Germany

2 Museo de Zoología, Centro de Biodiversidad y Ambiente, Escuela de Biología, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Av. 12 de Octubre 1076 y Roca, Aptdo. 17-01-2184, Quito Ecuador

3 Section of Integrative Biology, 1 University Station C09300, The University of Texas, TX78712, USA

4 Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, P.O. Box 0943-03092 Balboa Ancón, Republic of Panamá

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:146  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-146

Published: 18 May 2010



Uncovering how populations of a species differ genetically and ecologically is important for understanding evolutionary processes. Here we combine population genetic methods (microsatellites) with phylogenetic information (mtDNA) to define genetic population clusters of the wide-spread Neotropical túngara frog (Physalaemus pustulosus). We measure gene flow and migration within and between population clusters and compare genetic diversity between population clusters. By applying ecological niche modeling we determine whether the two most divergent genetic groups of the túngara frog (1) inhabit different habitats, and (2) are separated geographically by unsuitable habitat across a gap in the distribution.


Most population structure is captured by dividing all sample localities into two allopatric genetic lineages. The Northern genetic lineage (NW Costa Rica) is genetically homogenous while the Southern lineage (SW Costa Rica and Panama) is sub-divided into three population clusters by both microsatellite and mtDNA analyses. Gene flow is higher within the Northern lineage than within the Southern lineage, perhaps due to increased landscape heterogeneity in the South. Niche modeling reveals differences in suitable habitat between the Northern and Southern lineages: the Northern lineage inhabits dry/pine-oak forests, while the Southern lineage is confined to tropical moist forests. Both lineages seem to have had little movement across the distribution gap, which persisted during the last glacial maximum. The lack of movement was more pronounced for the Southern lineage than for the Northern lineage.


This study confirms the finding of previous studies that túngara frogs diverged into two allopatric genetic lineages north and south of the gap in the distribution in central Costa Rica several million years ago. The allopatric distribution is attributed to unsuitable habitat and probably other unknown ecological factors present across the distribution gap. Niche conservatism possibly contributes to preventing movements across the gap and gene flow between both groups. Genetic and ecological data indicate that there is the potential for ecological divergence in allopatry between lineages. In this context we discuss whether the Northern and Southern lineages should be recognized as separate species, and we conclude that further studies of pre- and post-zygotic isolation are needed for a final assessment. Identified population clusters should motivate future behavioral and ecological research regarding within-species biodiversity and speciation mechanisms.