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Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2007 Oct;45(1):33-49. Epub 2007 Jun 8.

Phylogeny of North American fireflies (Coleoptera: Lampyridae): implications for the evolution of light signals.

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  • 1Section of Integrative Biology and Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, School of Biological Sciences, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station C0930, Austin, TX 78712-0253, USA.


Representatives of the beetle family Lampyridae ("fireflies", "lightningbugs") are well known for their use of light signals for species recognition during mate search. However, not all species in this family use light for mate attraction, but use chemical signals instead. The lampyrids have a worldwide distribution with more than 2000 described species, but very little is known about their phylogenetic relationships. Within North America, some lampyrids use pheromones as the major mating signal whereas others use visual signals such as extended glows or short light flashes. Here, we use a phylogenetic approach to illuminate the relationships of North American lampyrids and the evolution of their mating signals. Specifically, to establish the first phylogeny of all North American lampyrid genera, we sequenced nuclear (18S) and mitochondrial (16S and COI) genes to investigate the phylogenetic relationships of 26 species from 16 North American (NA) genera and one species from the genus Pterotus that was removed recently from the Lampyridae. To test the monophyly of the NA firefly fauna we sequenced the same genes from three European lampyrids and three Asian lampyrids, and included all available Genbank data (27 additional Asian lampyrids and a former lampyrid from Asia, Rhagophthalmus). Our results show that the North American lampyrids are not monophyletic. Different subgroups are closely related to species from Europe, Asia and tropical America, respectively. The present classification of fireflies into subfamilies and tribes is not, for the most part, supported by our phylogenetic analysis. Two former lampyrid genera, Pterotus and Rhagophthalmus, which have recently been removed from this family, are in fact nested within the Lampyridae. Further, we found that the use of light as a sexual signal may have originated one or four times among lampyrids, followed by nine or four losses, respectively. Short flashes originated at least twice and possibly three times independently among our study taxa. The use of short flashes as a mating signal was replaced at least once by the use of long glows, and light signals as mating signals were lost at least three times in our study group and replaced by pheromones as the main signal mode.

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