Aim To test how Pleistocene climatic changes affected diversification of the Crotalus intermedius species complex.
Location Highlands of Mexico and the south-western United States (Arizona).
Methods We synthesize the matrilineal genealogy based on 2406 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA sequences, fossil-calibrated molecular dating, reconstruction of ancestral geographic ranges, and climate-based modelling of species distributions to evaluate the history of female dispersion.
Results The presently fragmented distribution of the C. intermedius group is the result of both Neogene vicariance and Pleistocene pine–oak habitat fragmentation. Most lineages appear to have a Quaternary origin. The Sierra Madre del Sur and northern Sierra Madre Oriental are likely to have been colonized during this time. Species distribution models for the Last Glacial Maximum predict expansions of suitable habitat for taxa in the southern Sierra Madre Occidental and northern Sierra Madre Oriental.
Main conclusions Lineage diversification in the C. intermedius group is a consequence of Pleistocene climate cycling. Distribution models for two sister taxa in the northern and southern Sierra Madre Occidental and northern Sierra Madre Oriental during the Last Glacial Maximum provide evidence for the expansion of pine–oak habitat across the Central Mexican Plateau. Downward displacement and subsequent expansions of highland vegetation across Mexico during cooler glacial cycles may have allowed dispersal between highlands, which resulted in contact between previously isolated taxa and the colonization of new habitats.