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BMC Evol Biol. 2017 May 25;17(1):119. doi: 10.1186/s12862-017-0967-2.

Evolutionary radiations in the species-rich mountain genus Saxifraga L.

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Department of Molecular Evolution and Plant Systematics & Herbarium (LZ), Institute of Biology, Leipzig University, Johannisallee 21-23, D-04103, Leipzig, Germany.
Department of Molecular Evolution and Plant Systematics & Herbarium (LZ), Institute of Biology, Leipzig University, Johannisallee 21-23, D-04103, Leipzig, Germany.
German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Deutscher Platz 5e, D-04103, Leipzig, Germany.



A large number of taxa have undergone evolutionary radiations in mountainous areas, rendering alpine systems particularly suitable to study the extrinsic and intrinsic factors that have shaped diversification patterns in plants. The species-rich genus Saxifraga L. is widely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, with high species numbers in the regions adjacent to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (QTP) in particular the Hengduan Mountains and the Himalayas. Using a dataset of 297 taxa (representing at least 60% of extant Saxifraga species), we explored the variation of infrageneric diversification rates. In addition, we used state-dependent speciation and extinction models to test the effects of geographic distribution in the Hengduan Mountains and the entire QTP region as well as of two morphological traits (cushion habit and specialized lime-secreting glands, so-called hydathodes) on the diversification of this genus.


We detected two to three rate shifts across the Saxifraga phylogeny and two of these shifts led to radiations within two large subclades of Saxifraga, sect. Ciliatae Haworth subsect. Hirculoideae Engl. & Irmsch. and sect. Porphyrion Tausch subsect. Kabschia Engl. GEOSSE analyses showed that presence in the Hengduan Mountains had a positive effect on diversification across Saxifraga. Influence of these mountains was strongest in Saxifraga sect. Ciliatae subsect. Hirculoideae given its pronounced distribution there, and thus the radiation in this group can be classified at least partially as geographic. In contrast, the evolution of the cushion life form and lime-secreting hydathodes had positive effects on diversification only in selected Saxifraga sections, including sect. Porphyrion subsect. Kabschia. We therefore argue that radiation in this group was likely adaptive.


Our study underlines the complexity of processes and factors underpinning plant radiations: Even in closely related lineages occupying the same life zone, shifts in diversification are not necessarily governed by similar factors. In conclusion, alpine plant radiations result from a complex interaction among geographical settings and/or climatic modifications providing key opportunities for diversification as well as the evolution of key innovations.


Evolutionary radiations; Hengduan Mountains; Saxifraga; alpine habitats; diversification rates; key innovations

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