Determining the degree of population connectivity and investigating factors driving genetic exchange at various geographical scales are essential to understanding population dynamics and spread potential of invasive species. Here, we explore these issues in the highly invasive vase tunicate, Ciona intestinalis, a species whose invasion history has been obscured by its poorly understood taxonomy and population genetics. Recent phylogenetic and comparative genomic studies suggest that C. intestinalis is a cryptic species complex consisting of at least three species. We reconstructed phylogenies based on both mitochondrial (cytochrome c oxidase subunit 3—NADH dehydrogenase subunit 1 region and NADH dehydrogenase subunit 4 gene) and nuclear (internal transcribed spacer 1) sequences, results of which support four major phylogroups corresponding to the previously reported spA, spB and Ciona spp. (spC) as well as an undescribed cryptic species (spD). While spC and spD remain restricted to their native ranges in the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea, respectively, the highly invasive species (spA and spB) have disjunct global distributions. Despite extensive interspecific divergences, we identified low phylogeographical structure within these two invasive species. Haplotype network analyses revealed comparatively limited mutation steps among haplotypes within each species. Population genetic analyses based on two mtDNA fragments and eight unlinked microsatellites illustrated relatively low population differentiation and high population connectivity at both regional and continental scales in the two invasive species. Human-mediated dispersal coupled with a high potential for natural dispersal is probably responsible for the observed genetic homogeneity.
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