We define the geographical distributions of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) lineages embedded within a broadly distributed, arid-dwelling toad, Bufo punctatus. These patterns were evaluated as they relate to hypothesized vicariant events leading to the formation of desert biotas within western North America. We assessed mtDNA sequence variation among 191 samples from 82 sites located throughout much of the species’ range. Parsimony-based haplotype networks of major identified lineages were used in nested clade analysis (NCA) to further elucidate and evaluate shallow phylogeographic patterns potentially associated with Quaternary (Pleistocene–Holocene) vicariance and dispersal. Phylogenetic analyses provided strong support for three monophyletic lineages (clades) within B. punctatus. The geographical distributions of the clades showed little overlap and corresponded to the general boundaries of the Peninsular Desert, and two continental desert regions, Eastern (Chihuahuan Desert–Colorado Plateau) and Western (Mojave–Sonoran deserts), geographically separated along the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Madre Occidental. The observed divergence levels and congruence with postulated events in earth history implicate a late Neogene (latest Miocene–early Pliocene) time frame for separation of the major mtDNA lineages. Evaluation of nucleotide and haplotype diversity and interpretations from NCA reveal that populations on the Colorado Plateau resulted from a recent, likely post-Pleistocene, range expansion from the Chihuahuan Desert. Dispersal across historical barriers separating major continental clades appear to be recent, resulting in secondary contacts in at least two areas. Given the observed contact between major clades, we speculated as to why the observed deep phylogeographic structure has not been eroded during the multiple previous interglacials of the Pleistocene.
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