The biogeography of mitochondrial and nuclear discordance in animals


David P. L. Toews, Fax: 604 822 2416; E-mail:


Combining nuclear (nuDNA) and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) markers has improved the power of molecular data to test phylogenetic and phylogeographic hypotheses and has highlighted the limitations of studies using only mtDNA markers. In fact, in the past decade, many conflicting geographic patterns between mitochondrial and nuclear genetic markers have been identified (i.e. mito-nuclear discordance). Our goals in this synthesis are to: (i) review known cases of mito-nuclear discordance in animal systems, (ii) to summarize the biogeographic patterns in each instance and (iii) to identify common drivers of discordance in various groups. In total, we identified 126 cases in animal systems with strong evidence of discordance between the biogeographic patterns obtained from mitochondrial DNA and those observed in the nuclear genome. In most cases, these patterns are attributed to adaptive introgression of mtDNA, demographic disparities and sex-biased asymmetries, with some studies also implicating hybrid zone movement, human introductions and Wolbachia infection in insects. We also discuss situations where divergent mtDNA clades seem to have arisen in the absence of geographic isolation. For those cases where foreign mtDNA haplotypes are found deep within the range of a second taxon, data suggest that those mtDNA haplotypes are more likely to be at a high frequency and are commonly driven by sex-biased asymmetries and/or adaptive introgression. In addition, we discuss the problems with inferring the processes causing discordance from biogeographic patterns that are common in many studies. In many cases, authors presented more than one explanation for discordant patterns in a given system, which indicates that likely more data are required. Ideally, to resolve this issue, we see important future work shifting focus from documenting the prevalence of mito-nuclear discordance towards testing hypotheses regarding the drivers of discordance. Indeed, there is great potential for certain cases of mitochondrial introgression to become important natural systems within which to test the effect of different mitochondrial genotypes on whole-animal phenotypes.