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PLoS One. 2014 Sep 2;9(9):e106267. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0106267. eCollection 2014.

Effects of mitochondrial DNA rate variation on reconstruction of Pleistocene demographic history in a social avian species, Pomatostomus superciliosus.

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National Marine Science Centre, Southern Cross University, Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, Australia; Department of Genetics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia; Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
National Marine Science Centre, Southern Cross University, Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, Australia.
Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; School of Science and Engineering, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria, Australia; New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, Narrandera Fisheries Centre, Narrandera, New South Wales, Australia.


Mitochondrial sequence data is often used to reconstruct the demographic history of Pleistocene populations in an effort to understand how species have responded to past climate change events. However, departures from neutral equilibrium conditions can confound evolutionary inference in species with structured populations or those that have experienced periods of population expansion or decline. Selection can affect patterns of mitochondrial DNA variation and variable mutation rates among mitochondrial genes can compromise inferences drawn from single markers. We investigated the contribution of these factors to patterns of mitochondrial variation and estimates of time to most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) for two clades in a co-operatively breeding avian species, the white-browed babbler Pomatostomus superciliosus. Both the protein-coding ND3 gene and hypervariable domain I control region sequences showed departures from neutral expectations within the superciliosus clade, and a two-fold difference in TMRCA estimates. Bayesian phylogenetic analysis provided evidence of departure from a strict clock model of molecular evolution in domain I, leading to an over-estimation of TMRCA for the superciliosus clade at this marker. Our results suggest mitochondrial studies that attempt to reconstruct Pleistocene demographic histories should rigorously evaluate data for departures from neutral equilibrium expectations, including variation in evolutionary rates across multiple markers. Failure to do so can lead to serious errors in the estimation of evolutionary parameters and subsequent demographic inferences concerning the role of climate as a driver of evolutionary change. These effects may be especially pronounced in species with complex social structures occupying heterogeneous environments. We propose that environmentally driven differences in social structure may explain observed differences in evolutionary rate of domain I sequences, resulting from longer than expected retention times for matriarchal lineages in the superciliosus clade.

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