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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Reticulate evolution: frequent introgressive hybridization among chinese hares (genus lepus) revealed by analyses of multiple mitochondrial and nuclear DNA loci

Jiang Liu1, Li Yu1*, Michael L Arnold3, Chun-Hua Wu25, Shi-Fang Wu2, Xin Lu4 and Ya-Ping Zhang12*

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory for Conservation and Utilization of Bio-resource & Key Laboratory for Microbial Resources of the Ministry of Education, Yunnan University, Kunming, 650091, PR, China

2 State Key Laboratory of Genetic Resources and Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, Kunming 650223, China

3 Department of Genetics, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA

4 Department of Zoology, College of Life Sciences, Wuhan University, Wuhan 430072, China

5 Utah State University Department of Animal, Dairy & Veterinary Sciences Old Main Hill 4700 Center for Integrated Biosystems Rm315 Logan, UT 84322-4700, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:223  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-223

Published: 28 July 2011

Abstract

Background

Interspecific hybridization may lead to the introgression of genes and genomes across species barriers and contribute to a reticulate evolutionary pattern and thus taxonomic uncertainties. Since several previous studies have demonstrated that introgressive hybridization has occurred among some species within Lepus, therefore it is possible that introgressive hybridization events also occur among Chinese Lepus species and contribute to the current taxonomic confusion.

Results

Data from four mtDNA genes, from 116 individuals, and one nuclear gene, from 119 individuals, provides the first evidence of frequent introgression events via historical and recent interspecific hybridizations among six Chinese Lepus species. Remarkably, the mtDNA of L. mandshuricus was completely replaced by mtDNA from L. timidus and L. sinensis. Analysis of the nuclear DNA sequence revealed a high proportion of heterozygous genotypes containing alleles from two divergent clades and that several haplotypes were shared among species, suggesting repeated and recent introgression. Furthermore, results from the present analyses suggest that Chinese hares belong to eight species.

Conclusion

This study provides a framework for understanding the patterns of speciation and the taxonomy of this clade. The existence of morphological intermediates and atypical mitochondrial gene genealogies resulting from frequent hybridization events likely contribute to the current taxonomic confusion of Chinese hares. The present study also demonstrated that nuclear gene sequence could offer a powerful complementary data set with mtDNA in tracing a complete evolutionary history of recently diverged species.