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Biogeography, phylogeny, and morphological evolution of central Texas cave and spring salamanders

Nathan F Bendik12*, Jesse M Meik3, Andrew G Gluesenkamp4, Corey E Roelke1 and Paul T Chippindale1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, Texas 76019, USA

2 City of Austin, Watershed Protection Department, Austin, Texas 78704, USA

3 Department of Biological Sciences, Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas 76402, USA

4 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin, Texas 78744, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:201  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-201

Published: 17 September 2013



Subterranean faunal radiations can result in complex patterns of morphological divergence involving both convergent or parallel phenotypic evolution and cryptic species diversity. Salamanders of the genus Eurycea in central Texas provide a particularly challenging example with respect to phylogeny reconstruction, biogeography and taxonomy. These predominantly aquatic species inhabit karst limestone aquifers and spring outflows, and exhibit a wide range of morphological and genetic variation. We extensively sampled spring and cave populations of six Eurycea species within this group (eastern Blepsimolge clade), to reconstruct their phylogenetic and biogeographic history using mtDNA and examine patterns and origins of cave- and surface-associated morphological variation.


Genetic divergence is generally low, and many populations share ancestral haplotypes and/or show evidence of introgression. This pattern likely indicates a recent radiation coupled with a complex history of intermittent connections within the aquatic karst system. Cave populations that exhibit the most extreme troglobitic morphologies show no or very low divergence from surface populations and are geographically interspersed among them, suggesting multiple instances of rapid, parallel phenotypic evolution. Morphological variation is diffuse among cave populations; this is in contrast to surface populations, which form a tight cluster in morphospace. Unexpectedly, our analyses reveal two distinct and previously unrecognized morphological groups encompassing multiple species that are not correlated with spring or cave habitat, phylogeny or geography, and may be due to developmental plasticity.


The evolutionary history of this group of spring- and cave-dwelling salamanders reflects patterns of intermittent isolation and gene flow influenced by complex hydrogeologic dynamics that are characteristic of karst regions. Shallow genetic divergences among several species, evidence of genetic exchange, and nested relationships across morphologically disparate cave and spring forms suggests that cave invasion was recent and many troglobitic morphologies arose independently. These patterns are consistent with an adaptive-shift hypothesis of divergence, which has been proposed to explain diversification in other karst fauna. While cave and surface forms often do not appear to be genetically isolated, morphological diversity within and among populations may be maintained by developmental plasticity, selection, or a combination thereof.

Eurycea; Blepsimolge; Salamanders; Troglobites; Cave adaptation; Morphological evolution; Troglomorphism