Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Localized versus generalist phenotypes in a broadly distributed tropical mammal: how is intraspecific variation distributed across disparate environments?

Diego F Alvarado-Serrano*, Lucia Luna and L Lacey Knowles

Author Affiliations

Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1079, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:160  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-160

Published: 31 July 2013

Abstract

Background

The extent of phenotypic differentiation in response to local environmental conditions is a key component of species adaptation and persistence. Understanding the structuring of phenotypic diversity in response to local environmental pressures can provide important insights into species evolutionary dynamics and responses to environmental change. This work examines the influence of steep environmental gradients on intraspecific phenotypic variation and tests two hypotheses about how the tropical soft grass mouse, Akodon mollis (Cricetidae, Rodentia), contends with the disparate environmental conditions encompassed by its broad distribution. Specifically, we test if the species expresses a geographically unstructured, or generalist, phenotype throughout its range or if it shows geographically localized morphological differentiation across disparate environments.

Results

Using geometric morphometric and ecomorphological analyses of skull shape variation we found that despite distinct environmental conditions, geographically structured morphological variation is limited, with the notable exception of a distinct morphological disjunction at the high-elevation forest-grassland transition in the southern portion of A. mollis distribution. Based on genetic analyses, geographic isolation alone does not explain this localized phenotype, given that similar levels of genetic differentiation were also observed among individuals inhabiting other ecosystems that are nonetheless not distinct morphologically.

Conclusions

Instead of phenotypic specialization across environments in these tropical mountains, there was limited differentiation of skull shape and size across the broad range of A. mollis, with the exception of individuals from the puna, the highest-elevation ecosystem. The high morphological variance among individuals, together with a weak association with local environmental conditions, not only highlights the flexibility of A. mollis’ skull, but also highlights the need for further study to understand what maintains the observed morphological patterns. The work also indicates that mechanisms other than processes linked to local ecological specialization as a driver of diversification may contribute to the high diversity of this tropical region.

Keywords:
Adaptation; Akodon mollis; Geometric morphometrics; Skull shape; Tropical mountains