Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The role of historical and contemporary processes on phylogeographic structure and genetic diversity in the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

Brian Tilston Smith12*, Patricia Escalante3, Blanca E Hernández Baños4, Adolfo G Navarro-Sigüenza4, Sievert Rohwer5 and John Klicka2

Author Affiliations

1 School of Life Sciences, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway Box 454004 Las Vegas, NV 89154, USA

2 Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway Box 454012, Las Vegas, NV 89154-4012, USA

3 Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México, D.F., México

4 Museo de Zoología, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Apartado Postal 70-399, México DF 04510, México

5 Burke Museum and Department of Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:136  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-136

Published: 20 May 2011



Earth history events such as climate change are believed to have played a major role in shaping patterns of genetic structure and diversity in species. However, there is a lag between the time of historical events and the collection of present-day samples that are used to infer contemporary population structure. During this lag phase contemporary processes such as dispersal or non-random mating can erase or reinforce population differences generated by historical events. In this study we evaluate the role of both historical and contemporary processes on the phylogeography of a widespread North American songbird, the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis.


Phylogenetic analysis revealed deep mtDNA structure with six lineages across the species' range. Ecological niche models supported the same geographic breaks revealed by the mtDNA. A paleoecological niche model for the Last Glacial Maximum indicated that cardinals underwent a dramatic range reduction in eastern North America, whereas their ranges were more stable in México. In eastern North America cardinals expanded out of glacial refugia, but we found no signature of decreased genetic diversity in areas colonized after the Last Glacial Maximum. Present-day demographic data suggested that population growth across the expansion cline is positively correlated with latitude. We propose that there was no loss of genetic diversity in areas colonized after the Last Glacial Maximum because recent high-levels of gene flow across the region have homogenized genetic diversity in eastern North America.


We show that both deep historical events as well as demographic processes that occurred following these events are critical in shaping genetic pattern and diversity in C. cardinalis. The general implication of our results is that patterns of genetic diversity are best understood when information on species history, ecology, and demography are considered simultaneously.