We used a comparative phylogeographical approach to investigate the origins of the disjunct wet forest biota of the Golfo Dulce region along the Pacific slope of Costa Rica. This region is isolated by Pacific dry forests north and south and isolated from Caribbean wet forests by mountains. We studied three sympatric lowland frog species in the Craugastor fitzingeri species group that prefer wet forest but differ in their response to dry habitats. In dry forest, C. fitzingeri can survive along streams while C. crassidigitus and C. talamancae are entirely absent. We collected samples from across the ranges of all three species, and obtained mitochondrial DNA sequence data from the COI and cytochrome b genes. We observed significant phylogeographical structure in C. crassidigitus and C. talamancae, but much less in C. fitzingeri, demonstrating that mountain barriers and dry forest habitat have reduced mitochondrial gene flow in the strictly wet-forest species. Additionally, we discovered that the Golfo Dulce and Central Panama populations of C. crassidigitus appear to have diverged in the Pliocene or earlier, suggesting that the dry forest separating these populations is old. Our phylogenetic analysis of 12 of approximately 16 species of the C. fitzingeri species group suggests that the three lowland species are each other's closest relatives. Because of this shared phylogenetic history, we attribute the striking differences in phylogeographical structure to the different ecologies of the frogs. In summary, we find that what appear to be minor differences in the natural history of these three closely related species may profoundly impact the potential for dispersal, range size, and cladogenesis.
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