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Syst Biol. 2004 Feb;53(1):18-24.

Out of Africa: the slow train to australasia.

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Department of Zoology, University of Otago, P.O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.


We used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences to test biogeographic hypotheses for Patiriella exigua (Asterinidae), one of the world's most widespread coastal sea stars. This small intertidal species has an entirely benthic life history and yet occurs in southern temperate waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. Despite its abundance around southern Africa, southeastern Australia, and several oceanic islands, P. exigua is absent from the shores of Western Australia, New Zealand, and South America. Phylogenetic analysis of mtDNA sequences (cytochrome oxidase I, control region) indicates that South Africa houses an assemblage of P. exigua that is not monophyletic (P = 0.04), whereas Australian and Lord Howe Island specimens form an interior monophyletic group. The placement of the root in Africa and small genetic divergences between eastern African and Australian haplotypes strongly suggest Pleistocene dispersal eastward across the Indian Ocean. Dispersal was probably achieved by rafting on wood or macroalgae, which was facilitated by the West Wind Drift. Genetic data also support Pleistocene colonization of oceanic islands (Lord Howe Island, Amsterdam Island, St. Helena). Although many biogeographers have speculated about the role of long-distance rafting, this study is one of the first to provide convincing evidence. The marked phylogeographic structure evident across small geographic scales in Australia and South Africa indicates that gene flow among populations may be generally insufficient to prevent the local evolution of monophyly. We suggest that P. exigua may rely on passive mechanisms of dispersal.

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