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Keywords:

  • cave;
  • cryptic species;
  • Niphargus;
  • phylogeography;
  • subterranean

Summary

1. Various groundwater habitats have exceptionally high levels of endemism caused by strong hydrographical isolation and low dispersal abilities of their inhabitants. More than 10% of macro-stygobiotic species nevertheless occupy relatively large ranges, measuring from some hundred to over 2000 km in length. These species represent a challenge because their distributions disregard hydrographical boundaries, and their means to disperse and maintain long-term gene flow are unknown.

2. Based on mitochondrial and nuclear gene sequences, we examined the phylogeographic structure of six formally recognised stygobiotic species (Niphargus virei, N. rhenorhodanensis, Troglocaris anophthalmus, T. hercegovinensis, Spelaeocaris pretneri, Proteus anguinus) and searched for cryptic lineage diversity in a genus-wide phylogeny of Niphargus. Using tree-based criteria as well as comparative divergence measures, we identified cryptic lineages, which may tentatively be equated with cryptic species.

3. Fourteen analysed nominal stygobiotic species with large ranges emerged as highly diversified, splitting into 51 tentative cryptic lineages. The degree of divergence was within the range or larger than the divergence of other related pairs of sister species. A substantial part (94%) of the cryptic lineages had ranges <200 km in length. One half of them were recorded at single sites only. The largest range recorded was that of a cryptic N. virei lineage (700 km), while none of the very large traditional ranges (e.g. Niphargus aquilex– 2300 km, N. tauri– 1900 km) could be corroborated.

4. These data suggest that small ranges of macro-stygobionts are the rule, and ranges over 200 km are extremely rare.

5. The implications of this result for groundwater biodiversity assessment and conservation include a considerable increase in overall diversity at the regional and continental scale and a strong decrease in faunal similarities among regions, coupled with greater endemism.