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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Aug 3;96(16):9178-83.

Forty million years of mutualism: evidence for eocene origin of the yucca-yucca moth association.

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Department of Biology, Vanderbilt University, Box 1812, Station B, Nashville, TN 37235, USA.


The obligate mutualism between yuccas and yucca moths is a major model system for the study of coevolving species interactions. Exploration of the processes that have generated current diversity and associations within this mutualism requires robust phylogenies and timelines for both moths and yuccas. Here we establish a molecular clock for the moths based on mtDNA and use it to estimate the time of major life history events within the yucca moths. Colonization of yuccas had occurred by 41.5 +/- 9.8 million years ago (Mya), with rapid life history diversification and the emergence of pollinators within 0-6 My after yucca colonization. A subsequent burst of diversification 3.2 +/- 1.8 Mya coincided with evolution of arid habitats in western North America. Derived nonpollinating cheater yucca moths evolved 1.26 +/- 0.96 Mya. The estimated age of the moths far predates the host fossil record, but is consistent with suggested host age based on paleobotanical, climatological, biogeographical, and geological data, and a tentative estimation from an rbcL-based molecular clock for yuccas. The moth data are used to establish three alternative scenarios of how the moths and plants have coevolved. They yield specific predictions that can be tested once a robust plant phylogeny becomes available.

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