Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata L.) is a globally important timber species which has been severely exploited in Mesoamerica for over 200 years. Using polymerase chain reaction–restriction fragment length polymorphisms, its chloroplast (cp) DNA phylogeography was studied in Mesoamerica with samples from 29 populations in six countries. Five haplotypes were characterized, phylogenetically grouped into three lineages (Northern, Central and Southern). Spatial analysis of ordered genetic distance confirmed deviation from a pattern of isolation by distance. The geographically proximate Northern and Central cpDNA lineages were genetically the most differentiated, with the Southern lineage appearing between them on a minimum spanning tree. However, populations possessing Southern lineage haplotypes occupy distinct moist habitats, in contrast to populations possessing Northern and Central lineage haplotypes which occupy drier and more seasonal habitats. Given the known colonization of the proto-Mesoamerican peninsula by South American flora and fauna prior to the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, it seems most likely that the observed population structure in C. odorata results from repeated colonization of Mesoamerica from South American source populations. Such a model would imply an ancient, pre-Isthmian colonization of a dry-adapted type (possessing the Northern lineage or a prototype thereof), with a secondary colonization via the land bridge. Following this, a more recent (possibly post-Pleistocene) expansion of moist-adapted types possessing the Southern lineage from the south fits the known vegetation history of the region.
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