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Abstract

New Zealand's native frogs (genus Leiopelma) are considered to be archaic amphibians of exceptional scientific interest that appear to have remained virtually unchanged for 160-200 million years. They are among the rarest extant amphibians and are highly restricted in distribution, confined to isolated, highly disjunct, populations on the North Island and a few small offshore islands in Cook Strait. Previous investigations have suggested, based on patterns of allozyme variation, that the Stephens Island frog (Leiopelma hamiltoni) and Archey's frog (L. archeyi) are sister taxa to the exclusion of the Maud Island frog, a species in close geographical proximity to the Stephens Island frog and previously viewed as a population of this species. As a consequence of these data, a new species, L. pakeka, the Maud Island Frog, has been described. This new species definition has dramatically enhanced the conservation status of L. hamiltoni, of which there are probably fewer than 150 individuals. In this study we re-examine the systematics of the Leiopelmatidae using mtDNA sequence analyses. Partial 12 S ribosomal RNA and cytochrome b (Cyt b) gene sequences were obtained for 57 frogs from six populations representing all four extant Leiopelma species. Contrary to previous reports we find L. pakeka and L. hamiltoni to be monophyletic. The amount of variation evident between these present species (<1% for Cyt b) is comparable to that seen between populations of L. archeyi. Based on these data, classification of L. pakeka and L. hamiltoni as separate species appears to be unwarranted, but they may be sufficiently distinct to warrant classification as evolutionarily significant units.