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Open Access Research article

Climate-driven diversification in two widespread Galerida larks

Alban Guillaumet12*, Pierre-André Crochet3 and Jean-Marc Pons45

Author Affiliations

1 Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution, C.C. 63, Université de Montpellier II, Place E. BATAILLON, 34095 Montpellier Cedex, France

2 EPHE – UMR 5175, Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, 1919 route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier cedex 5, France

3 CNRS – UMR 5175, Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, 1919 route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier cedex 5, France

4 Origine, Structure et Evolution de la biodiversité, UMR 5202, C.P. 51, 55 rue Buffon, 75005 Paris, France

5 Service de Systématique moléculaire, IFR 101 CNRS, 43 rue Cuvier, 75005 Paris, France

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:32  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-32

Published: 29 January 2008

Abstract

Background

The major impact of Plio-Pleistocene climatic oscillations on the current genetic structure of many species is widely recognised but their importance in driving speciation remains a matter of controversies. In addition, since most studies focused on Europe and North America, the influence of many other biogeographic barriers such as the Sahara remains poorly understood. In this paper, climate-driven diversification was investigated by using a comparative phylogeographic approach in combination with phenotypic data in two avian species groups distributed on both sides of the deserts belt of Africa and Asia. In particular, we tested whether: 1) vicariance diversification events are concomitant with past climatic events; and 2) current ecological factors (using climate and competition as proxies) contribute to phenotypic divergence between allopatric populations.

Results

Mitochondrial and nuclear sequence data indicated that the crested and Thekla lark species groups diverged in the early Pliocene and that subsequent speciation events were congruent with major late Pliocene and Pleistocene climatic events. In particular, steep increase in aridity in Africa near 2.8 and 1.7 million years ago were coincident with two north-south vicariance speciation events mediated by the Sahara. Subsequent glacial cycles of the last million years seem to have shaped patterns of genetic variation within the two widespread species (G. cristata and G. theklae). The Sahara appears to have allowed dispersal from the tropical areas during climatic optima but to have isolated populations north and south of it during more arid phases. Phenotypic variation did not correlate with the history of populations, but was strongly influenced by current ecological conditions. In particular, our results suggested that (i) desert-adapted plumage evolved at least three times and (ii) variation in body size was mainly driven by interspecific competition, but the response to competition was stronger in more arid areas.

Conclusion

Climatic fluctuations of the Plio-Pleistocene strongly impacted diversification patterns in the Galerida larks. Firstly, we found that cladogenesis coincides with major climatic changes, and the Sahara appears to have played a key role in driving speciation events. Secondly, we found that morphology and plumage were strongly determined by ecological factors (interspecific competition, climate) following vicariance.