Open Access Open Badges Research article

Deep divergences and extensive phylogeographic structure in a clade of lowland tropical salamanders

Sean M Rovito12, Gabriela Parra-Olea2*, Carlos R Vásquez-Almazán3, Roberto Luna-Reyes4 and David B Wake5

Author Affiliations

1 Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 3101 Valley Life Sciences Building, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 94720-3160, USA

2 Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, AP 70–153, Circuito Exterior, Ciudad Universitaria, CP 04310, México, D.F., México

3 Museo de Historia Natural, Escuela de Biología, Universidad de San Carlos, Calle Mariscal Cruz 1-56, Zona 10, Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala

4 Coordinación Técnica de Investigación, Secretaría de Medio Ambiente e Historia Natural, Av. de los Hombres Ilustres s/n, Fraccionamiento Francisco I. Madero, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, CP 29000, Chiapas, México

5 Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Department of Integrative Biology, 3101 Valley Life Sciences Building, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 94720-3160, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:255  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-255

Published: 29 December 2012



The complex geological history of Mesoamerica provides the opportunity to study the impact of multiple biogeographic barriers on population differentiation. We examine phylogeographic patterns in a clade of lowland salamanders (Bolitoglossa subgenus Nanotriton) using two mitochondrial genes and one nuclear gene. We use several phylogeographic analyses to infer the history of this clade and test hypotheses regarding the geographic origin of species and location of genetic breaks within species. We compare our results to those for other taxa to determine if historical events impacted different species in a similar manner.


Deep genetic divergence between species indicates that they are relatively old, and two of the three widespread species show strong phylogeographic structure. Comparison of mtDNA and nuclear gene trees shows no evidence of hybridization or introgression between species. Isolated populations of Bolitoglossa rufescens from Los Tuxtlas region constitute a separate lineage based on molecular data and morphology, and divergence between Los Tuxtlas and other areas appears to predate the arrival of B. rufescens in other areas west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Isthmus appears responsible for Pliocene vicariance within B. rufescens, as has been shown for other taxa. The Motagua-Polochic fault system does not appear to have caused population vicariance, unlike in other systems.


Species of Nanotriton have responded to some major geological events in the same manner as other taxa, particularly in the case of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The deep divergence of the Los Tuxtlas populations of B. rufescens from other populations highlights the contribution of this volcanic system to patterns of regional endemism, and morphological differences observed in the Los Tuxtlas populations suggests that they may represent an undescribed species of Bolitoglossa. The absence of phylogeographic structure in B. nympha, in contrast to the other widespread species in the subgenus, may be due to historical forest contraction and more recent range expansion in the region. Phylogeographic data provide substantial insight into the evolutionary history of these morphologically similar species of salamanders, and contribute to our understanding of factors that have generated the high biodiversity of Mesoamerica.

Salamander; Phylogeography; Mesoamerica; Isthmus of Tehuantepec; Biogeography; Bolitoglossa