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Heredity (Edinb). 2004 Nov;93(5):468-75.

Nuclear mitochondrial pseudogenes as molecular outgroups for phylogenetically isolated taxa: a case study in Sphenodon.

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  • 1Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Massey University, Private Bag 102 904, North Shore Mail Centre, Auckland, New Zealand.


'Living fossil' taxa, by definition, have no close relatives, and therefore no outgroup to provide a root to phylogenetic trees. We identify and use a molecular outgroup in the sole extant lineage of sphenodontid reptiles, which separated from other reptiles 230 million years ago. We isolated and sequenced a partial nuclear copy of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. We confirm the copy is indeed not mitochondrial, is older than all extant mitochondrial copies in Sphenodon (tuatara), and is therefore useful as a molecular outgroup. Under phylogenetic analysis, the nuclear copy places the root of the tuatara mitochondrial gene tree between the northern and the southern (Cook Strait) groups of islands of New Zealand that are the last refugia for Sphenodon. This analysis supports a previous mid-point rooted mitochondrial gene tree. The mitochondrial DNA tree conflicts with allozyme analyses which place a Cook Strait population equidistant to all northern and other Cook Strait populations. This population on North Brother Island is the only natural population of extant S. guntheri; thus, we suggest that the current species designations of tuatara require further investigation.

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