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ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Cycads in the insular South-west Pacific: dispersal or vicariance?


  • Gunnar Keppel,

    Corresponding author
    1. Biology Division, Faculty of Science and Technology, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
      Gunnar Keppel, School of Integrative Biology, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, 4072 Qld, Australia.
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  • Paul D. Hodgskiss,

    1. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Institute of Forest Genetics, Davis, CA, USA
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  • Gregory M. Plunkett

    1. Department of Biology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA
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Gunnar Keppel, School of Integrative Biology, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, 4072 Qld, Australia.


Aim  Cycads constitute an ancient plant group that is generally believed to disperse poorly. However, one group of cycads (subsection Rumphiae) is thought to have dispersed relatively recently from a Malesian source area westwards to East Africa and eastwards into the Pacific, using a floatation-facilitating layer in their seeds. We use morphological and allozyme characters to investigate the relationships among the species within this group and to deduce whether the wide distribution was achieved by recent dispersal (as evidenced by high genetic similarity) or more distant vicariance events (high genetic differentiation).

Location  We examined specimens collected throughout the range of subsection Rumphiae, from East Africa through Southeast Asia to Tonga in the South-west Pacific.

Methods  We investigated relationships within subsection Rumphiae of the genus Cycas by analysing 18 variable (11 informative) morphological characters and 22 allozyme loci for seven of the 10 species currently assigned to this taxon.

Results  Distinctive morphological characters are few and fail to resolve relationships within the group. Allozyme data show that species within this subsection are closely related and suggest that there are two groups within the subsection, one comprising Cycas thouarsii (East Africa) and C. edentata (the Philippines), and the other the remaining species (from Malesia and the Pacific). The Australian species C. silvestris is sister to subsection Rumphiae in the morphological analysis but is closely allied to C. rumphii (nested within the subsection) in the allozyme analysis, suggesting that Rumphiae may be paraphyletic and that characters thought to be taxonomically important may need to be re-evaluated.

Main conclusions  Cycads within subsection Rumphiae are closely related, and the wide distribution of this group was probably achieved through relatively recent oceanic dispersal events. Separate events probably account for the dispersal of these cycads into the Pacific and to Africa. The origin and distribution of C. silvestris (Australia) could be explained by a dispersal event from New Guinea or may have resulted from a former land connection between Australia and New Guinea.

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