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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Species delimitation and phylogeny of a New Zealand plant species radiation

Heidi M Meudt13*, Peter J Lockhart1 and David Bryant2

Author Affiliations

1 Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Massey University, Private Bag 11222, Palmerston North 4442, New Zealand

2 Department of Mathematics, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1142, New Zealand

3 Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, PO Box 467, Wellington 6140, New Zealand

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:111  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-111

Published: 20 May 2009



Delimiting species boundaries and reconstructing the evolutionary relationships of late Tertiary and Quaternary species radiations is difficult. One recent approach emphasizes the use of genome-wide molecular markers, such as amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLPs) and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), to identify distinct metapopulation lineages as taxonomic species. Here we investigate the properties of AFLP data, and the usefulness of tree-based and non-tree-based clustering methods to delimit species and reconstruct evolutionary relationships among high-elevation Ourisia species (Plantaginaceae) in the New Zealand archipelago.


New Zealand Ourisia are shown to comprise a geologically recent species radiation based on molecular dating analyses of ITS sequences (0.4–1.3 MY). Supernetwork analyses indicate that separate tree-based clustering analyses of four independent AFLP primer combinations and 193 individuals of Ourisia produced similar trees. When combined and analysed using tree building methods, 15 distinct metapopulations could be identified. These clusters corresponded very closely to species and subspecies identified on the basis of diagnostic morphological characters. In contrast, Structure and PCO-MC analyses of the same data identified a maximum of 12 and 8 metapopulations, respectively. All approaches resolved a large-leaved group and a small-leaved group, as well as a lineage of three alpine species within the small-leaved group. We were unable to further resolve relationships within these groups as corrected and uncorrected distances derived from AFLP profiles had limited tree-like properties.


Ourisia radiated into a range of alpine and subalpine habitats in New Zealand during the Pleistocene, resulting in 13 morphologically and ecologically distinct species, including one reinstated from subspecies rank. Analyses of AFLP identified distinct metapopulations consistent with morphological characters allowing species boundaries to be delimited in Ourisia. Importantly, Structure analyses suggest some degree of admixture with most species, which may also explain why the AFLP data do not exhibit sufficient tree-like properties necessary for reconstructing some species relationships. We discuss this feature and highlight the importance of improving models for phylogenetic analyses of species radiations using AFLP and SNP data.