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Keywords:

  • biogeography;
  • climate change;
  • glacial cycles;
  • Ouachita Mountains;
  • phylogeography;
  • Pleistocene

Abstract

Sky islands provide ideal opportunities for understanding how climatic changes associated with Pleistocene glacial cycles influenced species distributions, genetic diversification, and demography. The salamander Plethodon ouachitae is largely restricted to high-elevation, mesic forest on six major mountains in the Ouachita Mountains. Because these mountains are separated by more xeric, low-elevation valleys, the salamanders appear to be isolated on sky islands where gene flow among populations on different mountains may be restricted. We used DNA sequence data along with ecological niche modelling and coalescent simulations to test several hypotheses related to diversifications in sky island habitats. Our results revealed that P. ouachitae is composed of seven well-supported lineages structured across six major mountains. The species originated during the Late Pliocene, and lineage diversification occurred during the Middle Pleistocene in a stepping stone fashion with a cyclical pattern of dispersal to a new mountain followed by isolation and divergence. Diversification occurred primarily on an east–west axis, which is likely related to the east–west orientation of the Ouachita Mountains and the more favourable cooler and wetter environmental conditions on north slopes compared to south-facing slopes and valleys. All non-genealogical coalescent methods failed to detect significant population expansion in any lineages. Bayesian skyline plots showed relatively stable population sizes over time, but indicated a slight to moderate amount of population growth in all lineages starting approximately 10 000–12 000 years ago. Our results provide new insight into sky island diversifications from a previously unstudied region, and further demonstrate that climatic changes during the Pleistocene had profound effects on lineage diversification and demography, especially in species from environmentally sensitive habitats in montane regions.