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Mol Phylogenet Evol. 1998 Aug;10(1):37-48.

Rapid speciation, morphological evolution, and adaptation to extreme environments in South African sand lizards (Meroles) as revealed by mitochondrial gene sequences.

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  • 1Department of Zoology, Natural History Museum, London, England.


Data derived from the morphology of the seven species of South African sand lizards, Meroles (Reptilia, Lacertidae), and their outgroups produce a robust estimate of phylogeny when a maximum parsimony approach is applied. The estimate is fully resolved with little character conflict and internal branches are relatively long. This analysis indicates that Meroles is a true clade that includes the aberrant lacertid long separated as Aporosaura anchietae. The tree is pectinate, its successive external branches representing species with increasing adaptation to desert conditions, especially aeolian sand habitats. This pattern, and the robustness of the tree, support a model of invasion of severe habitats in which successive rounds of speciation, displacement, and adaptation result in spread into extreme ecological situations. To test the robust morphological phylogeny and, indirectly, the model as well, DNA from mitochondrial 12S and 16S ribosomal genes was sequenced and analyzed by both maximum parsimony and maximum likelihood approaches. Trees produced were largely congruent with that derived from morphology, although different from ones resulting from protein electrophoresis. However, in contrast to the internal branches of the morphological tree, those of the DNA maximum likelihood tree are quite short. The DNA data provide some corroboration for the relationships within Meroles based on morphology and consequently for the model as well. The disparity in internal branch lengths between the maximum parsimony morphological and maximum likelihood DNA trees may well indicate that the multiple adaptations to desert conditions arising on the main lineage of Meroles evolved quite rapidly. In this study DNA thus not only corroborates the phylogeny but also provides evidence about another aspect of evolutionary history.

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