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Open Access Research article

Landforms predict phylogenetic structure on one of the world's most ancient surfaces

Mitzy Pepper1, Paul Doughty2, Richard Arculus3 and J Scott Keogh1*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Botany and Zoology, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

2 Department of Terrestrial Vertebrates, Western Australian Museum, 49 Kew Street, Welshpool, WA 6106, Australia

3 School of Earth and Marine Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:152  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-152

Published: 19 May 2008

Abstract

Background

The iconic Pilbara in northwestern Australia is an ancient geological and biophysical region that is an important zone of biodiversity, endemism and refugia. It also is overlain by some of the oldest erosion surfaces on Earth, but very little is known about the patterns of biotic diversity within the Pilbara or how they relate to the landscape. We combined phylogenetic and spatial-autocorrelation genetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA data on populations of the gekkotan lizard Lucasium stenodactylum within the Pilbara with geological, distributional and habitat data to test the hypothesis that ancient surface geology predicts current clade-habitat associations in saxicoline animals.

Results

This is the first detailed phylogenetic examination of a vertebrate organism across the Pilbara region. Our phylogeny provides strong support for a deep and ancient phylogenetic split within L. stenodactylum that distinguishes populations within the Pilbara region from those outside the Pilbara. Within the Pilbara region itself, our phylogeny has identified five major clades whose distribution closely matches different surface geologies of this ancient landscape. Each clade shows strong affinities with particular terrain types and topographic regions, which are directly related to different geological bedrock.

Conclusion

Together our phylogenetic, distributional, geological and habitat data provide a clear example of ecological diversification across an ancient and heterogeneous landscape. Our favoured hypothesis is that ancestors of the Pilbara lineages radiated into the region at the onset of aridity in Australia approximately 5 mya and locally adapted to the various ancient and highly stable terrain types and the micro-habitats derived from them. In terms of specimen recovery and analysis, we are only beginning to reconstruct the biotic history of this ancient landscape. Our results show the geological history and the habitats derived from them will form an important part of this emerging story.