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Complex patterns of genetic and phenotypic divergence in an island bird and the consequences for delimiting conservation units


A. B. Phillimore, Fax: +44(0)20 75942339; E-mail:


Substantial phenotypic and genetic variation is often found below the species level and this may be useful in quantifying biodiversity and predicting future diversification. However, relatively few studies have tested whether different aspects of intraspecific variation show congruent patterns across populations. Here, we quantify several aspects of divergence between 13 insular populations of an island endemic bird, the Vanuatu white-eye (Zosterops flavifrons). The components of divergence studied are mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), nuclear DNA microsatellites and morphology. These different aspects of divergence present subtly different scenarios. For instance, an mtDNA phylogenetic tree reveals a potential cryptic species on the most southerly island in Vanuatu and considerable divergence between at least two other major phylogroups. Microsatellite loci suggest that population genetic divergence between insular populations, both between and within phylogroups, is substantial, a result that is consistent with a low level of interisland gene flow. Finally, most populations were found to be strongly morphologically divergent, but no single population was morphologically diagnosable from all others. Taken together, our results show that, although many measures of divergence are concordant in this system, the number of divergent units identified varies widely depending on the characters considered and approach used. A continuum of divergence and a degree of discordance between different characters are both to be expected under simple models of evolution, but they present problems in terms of delimiting conservation units.