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Keywords:

  • DNA sequences;
  • mid-Pleistocene transition;
  • penguins;
  • phylogeography;
  • Southern Ocean;
  • vicariant speciation;
  • watermasses

Abstract

Aim  The Southern Ocean is split into several biogeographical provinces between convergence zones that separate watermasses of different temperatures. Recent molecular phylogenies have uncovered a strong phylogeographic structure among rockhopper penguin populations, Eudyptes chrysocome sensu lato, from different biogeographical provinces. These studies suggested a reclassification as three species in two major clades, corresponding, respectively, to warm, subtropical and cold sub-Antarctic watermasses rather than to geographic proximity. Such a phylogeographic pattern, also observed in plants, invertebrates and fishes of the Southern Ocean, suggests that past changes in the positions of watermasses may have affected the evolutionary history of penguins. We calculated divergence times among various rockhopper penguin clades and calibrated these data with palaeomagmatic and palaeoceanographic events to generate a speciation chronology in rockhopper penguins.

Location  Southern Ocean.

Methods  Divergence times between populations were calculated using five distinct mitochondrial DNA loci, and assuming a molecular clock model as implemented in mdiv. The molecular evolution rate of rockhopper penguins was calibrated using the radiochronological age of St Paul Island and Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean. Separations within other clades were correlated with palaeoceanographic data using this calibrated rate.

Results  The split between the Atlantic and Indian populations of rockhopper penguins was dated as 0.25 Ma, using the date of emergence of St Paul and Amsterdam islands, and the divergence between sub-Antarctic and subtropical rockhopper penguins was dated as c. 0.9 Ma (i.e. during the mid-Pleistocene transition, a major change in the Earth’s climate cycles).

Main conclusions  The mid-Pleistocene transition is known to have caused a major southward shift in watermasses in the Southern Ocean, thus changing the environment around the northernmost rockhopper penguin breeding sites. This ecological isolation of northernmost populations may have caused vicariant speciation, splitting the species into two major clades. After the emergence of St Paul and Amsterdam islands in the subtropical Indian Ocean 0.25 Ma, these islands were colonized by penguins from the subtropical Atlantic, 6000 km away, rather than by penguins from the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean, 5000 km closer.