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Patterns of persistence and isolation indicate resilience to climate change in montane rainforest lizards


Rayna C. Bell, Fax: +1 607 255 8088; E-mail:


Globally, montane tropical diversity is characterized by extraordinary local endemism that is not readily explained by current environmental variables indicating a strong imprint of history. Montane species often exist as isolated populations under current climatic conditions and may have remained isolated throughout recent climatic cycles, leading to substantial genetic and phenotypic divergence. Alternatively, populations may have become contiguous during colder climates resulting in less divergence. Here we compare responses to historical climate fluctuation in a montane specialist skink, Lampropholis robertsi, and its more broadly distributed congener, L. coggeri, both endemic to rainforests of northeast Australia. To do so, we combine spatial modelling of potential distributions under representative palaeoclimates, multi-locus phylogeography and analyses of phenotypic variation. Spatial modelling of L. robertsi predicts strong isolation among disjunct montane refugia during warm climates, but with potential for localized exchange during the most recent glacial period. In contrast, predicted stable areas are more widespread and connected in L. coggeri. Both species exhibit pronounced phylogeographic structuring for mitochondrial and nuclear genes, attesting to low dispersal and high persistence across multiple isolated regions. This is most prominent in L. robertsi, for which coalescent analyses indicate that most populations persisted in isolation throughout the climate cycles of the Pleistocene. Morphological divergence, principally in body size, is more evident among isolated populations of L. robertsi than L. coggeri. These results highlight the biodiversity value of isolated montane populations and support the general hypothesis that tropical montane regions harbour high levels of narrow-range taxa because of their resilience to past climate change.