Drawbacks with the use of microsatellites in phylogeography: the song sparrow Melospiza melodia as a case study


  • Robert M. Zink

R. M. Zink (correspondence), Bell Mus., Univ. of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108 USA. E-mail: zinkx003@umn.edu


Microsatellites are commonly used molecular markers in phylogeography, and many view them as superior to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) gene trees. Being based on frequencies of alleles, and not gene trees, microsatellites exhibit the same analytical drawbacks that resulted in the abandonment of allozymes in genetic studies of population history. I illustrate some these familiar drawbacks by reanalyzing microsatellite data on the song sparrow. Subspecies were previously evaluated with hierarchical analyses of molecular variance, suggesting that subspecies explain 8% of the total variance in microsatellite frequencies. However, this useful heuristic technique only evaluates a priori groupings, and the objective of the study ought to be to discover such groupings, not assume them. In fact, other arbitrary groupings of samples explained the same or greater amounts of variance, and I suggest that for testing subspecies limits, a gene tree is preferable. Grouping population samples by subspecies in the San Francisco Bay area accounts for 1.2% of the microsatellite variation, and despite claims that this informs conservation planning, the data do not support any particular population or subspecies as being genetically or evolutionarily significant. A distance phenogram was used to infer a sequential colonization of the Aleutian Islands, but because individuals were pooled into a priori groups and the phenogram was arbitrarily rooted, this conclusion is tenuous. A plot of heterozygosity vs number of alleles per sample showed that an equally parsimonious interpretation is that current genetic diversity tracks effective population size. Microsatellites should be replaced in nuclear-gene phylogeography by analyses of sequences, which will benefit the study of phylogeography, comparison of nuclear and mtDNA results, and aid in interpreting the results in a conservation context.