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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Integrating paleoecology and genetics of bird populations in two sky island archipelagos

John E McCormack12*, Bonnie S Bowen3 and Thomas B Smith12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, Charles E Young Drive South, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA

2 Center for Tropical Research, Institute of the Environment, University of California, Los Angeles, Charles E Young Drive South, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA

3 Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA

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BMC Biology 2008, 6:28  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-6-28

Published: 27 June 2008



Genetic tests of paleoecological hypotheses have been rare, partly because recent genetic divergence is difficult to detect and time. According to fossil plant data, continuous woodland in the southwestern USA and northern Mexico became fragmented during the last 10,000 years, as warming caused cool-adapted species to retreat to high elevations. Most genetic studies of resulting 'sky islands' have either failed to detect recent divergence or have found discordant evidence for ancient divergence. We test this paleoecological hypothesis for the region with intraspecific mitochondrial DNA and microsatellite data from sky-island populations of a sedentary bird, the Mexican jay (Aphelocoma ultramarina). We predicted that populations on different sky islands would share common, ancestral alleles that existed during the last glaciation, but that populations on each sky island, owing to their isolation, would contain unique variants of postglacial origin. We also predicted that divergence times estimated from corrected genetic distance and a coalescence model would post-date the last glacial maximum.


Our results provide multiple independent lines of support for postglacial divergence, with the predicted pattern of shared and unique mitochondrial DNA haplotypes appearing in two independent sky-island archipelagos, and most estimates of divergence time based on corrected genetic distance post-dating the last glacial maximum. Likewise, an isolation model based on multilocus gene coalescence indicated postglacial divergence of five pairs of sky islands. In contrast to their similar recent histories, the two archipelagos had dissimilar historical patterns in that sky islands in Arizona showed evidence for older divergence, suggesting different responses to the last glaciation.


This study is one of the first to provide explicit support from genetic data for a postglacial divergence scenario predicted by one of the best paleoecological records in the world. Our results demonstrate that sky islands act as generators of genetic diversity at both recent and historical timescales and underscore the importance of thorough sampling and the use of loci with fast mutation rates to studies that test hypotheses concerning recent genetic divergence.