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Open Access Research article

Lineage diversification and historical demography of a montane bird Garrulax elliotii - implications for the Pleistocene evolutionary history of the eastern Himalayas

Yanhua Qu1, Xu Luo2, Ruiying Zhang1, Gang Song1, Fasheng Zou3 and Fumin Lei1*

Author Affiliations

1 Key Laboratory of Zoological Systematics and Evolution, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China

2 Faculty of Conservation Biology, Southwest Forestry University, Kunming, 650224, China

3 South China Institute of Endangered Animals, Guangzhou 510260, China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:174  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-174

Published: 21 June 2011



Pleistocene climate fluctuations have shaped the patterns of genetic diversity observed in many extant species. In montane habitats, species' ranges may have expanded and contracted along an altitudinal gradient in response to environmental fluctuations leading to alternating periods of genetic isolation and connectivity. Because species' responses to climate change are influenced by interactions between species-specific characteristics and local topography, diversification pattern differs between species and locations. The eastern Himalayas is one of the world's most prominent mountain ranges. Its complex topography and environmental heterogeneity present an ideal system in which to study how climatic changes during Pleistocene have influenced species distributions, genetic diversification, and demography. The Elliot's laughing thrush (Garrulax elliotii) is largely restricted to high-elevation shrublands in eastern Himalayas. We used mitochondrial DNA and microsatellites to investigate how genetic diversity in this species was affected by Pleistocene glaciations.


Mitochondrial data detected two partially sympatric north-eastern and southern lineages. Microsatellite data, however, identified three distinct lineages congruent with the geographically separated southern, northern and eastern eco-subregions of the eastern Himalayas. Geographic breaks occur in steep mountains and deep valleys of the Kangding-Muli-Baoxin Divide. Divergence time estimates and coalescent simulations indicate that lineage diversification occurred on two different geographic and temporal scales; recent divergence, associated with geographic isolation into individual subregions, and historical divergence, associated with displacement into multiple refugia. Despite long-term isolation, genetic admixture among these subregional populations was observed, indicating historic periods of connectivity. The demographic history of Garrulax elliotii shows continuous population growth since late Pleistocene (about 0.125 mya).


While altitude-associated isolation is typical of many species in other montane regions, our results suggest that eco-subregions in the eastern Himalayas exhibiting island-like characteristics appear to have determined the diversification of Garrulax elliotii. During the Pleistocene, these populations became isolated on subregions during interglacial periods but were connected when these expanded to low altitude during cooler periods. The resultant genetic admixture of lineages might obscure pattern of genetic variation. Our results provide new insights into sky island diversification in a previously unstudied region, and further demonstrate that Pleistocene climatic changes can have profound effects on lineage diversification and demography in montane species.

Pleistocene glaciations; sky islands; diversification; eco-subregion; multiple refugia; genetic admixture