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Open Access Research article

The evolutionary radiation of Arvicolinae rodents (voles and lemmings): relative contribution of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA phylogenies

Thomas Galewski1*, Marie-ka Tilak1, Sophie Sanchez2, Pascale Chevret1, Emmanuel Paradis13 and Emmanuel JP Douzery1

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratoire de Paléontologie, Phylogénie et Paléobiologie – CC064, Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution UMR 5554/CNRS, Université Montpellier II; Place E. Bataillon, 34 095 Montpellier Cedex 05 –, France

2 Ecophysiologie : évolution et adaptation moléculaires, Station Biologique, Place Georges Teissier – BP 7429 680 Roscoff –, France

3 Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, UR175 CAVIAR, GAMET – BP 5095, 361 rue Jean François Breton, 34196 Montpellier Cedex 5 –, France

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2006, 6:80  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-6-80

Published: 9 October 2006



Mitochondrial and nuclear genes have generally been employed for different purposes in molecular systematics, the former to resolve relationships within recently evolved groups and the latter to investigate phylogenies at a deeper level. In the case of rapid and recent evolutionary radiations, mitochondrial genes like cytochrome b (CYB) are often inefficient for resolving phylogenetic relationships. One of the best examples is illustrated by Arvicolinae rodents (Rodentia; Muridae), the most impressive mammalian radiation of the Northern Hemisphere which produced voles, lemmings and muskrats. Here, we compare the relative contribution of a nuclear marker – the exon 10 of the growth hormone receptor (GHR) gene – to the one of the mitochondrial CYB for inferring phylogenetic relationships among the major lineages of arvicoline rodents.


The analysis of GHR sequences improves the overall resolution of the Arvicolinae phylogeny. Our results show that the Caucasian long-clawed vole (Prometheomys schaposnikowi) is one of the basalmost arvicolines, and confirm that true lemmings (Lemmus) and collared lemmings (Dicrostonyx) are not closely related as suggested by morphology. Red-backed voles (Myodini) are found as the sister-group of a clade encompassing water vole (Arvicola), snow vole (Chionomys), and meadow voles (Microtus and allies). Within the latter, no support is recovered for the generic recognition of Blanfordimys, Lasiopodomys, Neodon, and Phaiomys as suggested by morphology. Comparisons of parameter estimates for branch lengths, base composition, among sites rate heterogeneity, and GTR relative substitution rates indicate that CYB sequences consistently exhibit more heterogeneity among codon positions than GHR. By analyzing the contribution of each codon position to node resolution, we show that the apparent higher efficiency of GHR is due to their third positions. Although we focus on speciation events spanning the last 10 million years (Myr), CYB sequences display highly saturated codon positions contrary to the nuclear exon. Lastly, variable length bootstrap predicts a significant increase in resolution of arvicoline phylogeny through the sequencing of nuclear data in an order of magnitude three to five times greater than the size of GHR exon 10.


Our survey provides a first resolved gene tree for Arvicolinae. The comparison of CYB and GHR phylogenetic efficiency supports recent assertions that nuclear genes are useful for resolving relationships of recently evolved animals. The superiority of nuclear exons may reside both in (i) less heterogeneity among sites, and (ii) the presence of highly informative sites in third codon positions, that evolve rapidly enough to accumulate synapomorphies, but slow enough to avoid substitutional saturation.