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Open Access Research article

Evolution and loss of long-fringed petals: a case study using a dated phylogeny of the snake gourds, Trichosanthes (Cucurbitaceae)

Hugo J de Boer1*, Hanno Schaefer2, Mats Thulin3 and Susanne S Renner4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Systematic Biology, Uppsala University, Norbyvägen 18 D, Uppsala, SE-75236, Sweden

2 Harvard University, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, 22 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA, 02138, U.S.A

3 Department of Systematic Biology, Uppsala University, Norbyvägen 18 D, Uppsala, SE-75236, Sweden

4 University of Munich (LMU), Systematic Botany and Mycology, Menzinger Str. 67, Munich, 80638, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:108  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-108

Published: 3 July 2012

Abstract

Background

The Cucurbitaceae genus Trichosanthes comprises 90–100 species that occur from India to Japan and southeast to Australia and Fiji. Most species have large white or pale yellow petals with conspicuously fringed margins, the fringes sometimes several cm long. Pollination is usually by hawkmoths. Previous molecular data for a small number of species suggested that a monophyletic Trichosanthes might include the Asian genera Gymnopetalum (four species, lacking long petal fringes) and Hodgsonia (two species with petals fringed). Here we test these groups’ relationships using a species sampling of c. 60% and 4759 nucleotides of nuclear and plastid DNA. To infer the time and direction of the geographic expansion of the Trichosanthes clade we employ molecular clock dating and statistical biogeographic reconstruction, and we also address the gain or loss of petal fringes.

Results

Trichosanthes is monophyletic as long as it includes Gymnopetalum, which itself is polyphyletic. The closest relative of Trichosanthes appears to be the sponge gourds, Luffa, while Hodgsonia is more distantly related. Of six morphology-based sections in Trichosanthes with more than one species, three are supported by the molecular results; two new sections appear warranted. Molecular dating and biogeographic analyses suggest an Oligocene origin of Trichosanthes in Eurasia or East Asia, followed by diversification and spread throughout the Malesian biogeographic region and into the Australian continent.

Conclusions

Long-fringed corollas evolved independently in Hodgsonia and Trichosanthes, followed by two losses in the latter coincident with shifts to other pollinators but not with long-distance dispersal events. Together with the Caribbean Linnaeosicyos, the Madagascan Ampelosicyos and the tropical African Telfairia, these cucurbit lineages represent an ideal system for more detailed studies of the evolution and function of petal fringes in plant-pollinator mutualisms.