Mitochondrial DNA under siege in avian phylogeography


Robert M. Zink, Fax: 612 624 6777; E-mail:


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has been the workhorse of research in phylogeography for almost two decades. However, concerns with basing evolutionary interpretations on mtDNA results alone have been voiced since the inception of such studies. Recently, some authors have suggested that the potential problems with mtDNA are so great that inferences about population structure and species limits are unwarranted unless corroborated by other evidence, usually in the form of nuclear gene data. Here we review the relative merits of mitochondrial and nuclear phylogeographical studies, using birds as an exemplar class of organisms. A review of population demographic and genetic theory indicates that mitochondrial and nuclear phylogeographical results ought to concur for both geographically unstructured populations and for populations that have long histories of isolation. However, a relatively common occurrence will be shallow, but geographically structured mtDNA trees—without nuclear gene corroboration—for populations with relatively shorter periods of isolation. This is expected because of the longer coalescence times of nuclear genes (approximately four times that of mtDNA); such cases do not contradict the mtDNA inference of recent isolation and evolutionary divergence. Rather, the nuclear markers are more lagging indicators of changes in population structure. A review of the recent literature on birds reveals the existence of relatively few cases in which nuclear markers contradict mitochondrial markers in a fashion not consistent with coalescent theory. Preliminary information from nuclear genes suggests that mtDNA patterns will prove to be robust indicators of patterns of population history and species limits. At equilibrium, mitochondrial loci are generally a more sensitive indicator of population structure than are nuclear loci, and mitochondrial estimates of FST-like statistics are generally expected to exceed nuclear ones. Hence, invoking behavioural or ecological explanations of such differences is not parsimonious. Nuclear genes will prove important for quantitative estimates of the depths of haplotype trees, rates of population growth and values of gene flow.