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Keywords:

  • barcoding;
  • Characteristic Attribute Organization System;
  • species identification;
  • turtles

Abstract

Molecular barcoding can serve as a powerful tool in wildlife forensics and may prove to be a vital aid in conserving organisms that are threatened by illegal wildlife trade, such as turtles (Order Testudines). We produced cytochrome oxidase subunit one (COI) sequences (650 bp) for 174 turtle species and combined these with publicly available sequences for 50 species to produce a data set representative of the breadth of the order. Variability within the barcode region was assessed, and the utility of both distance-based and character-based methods for species identification was evaluated. For species in which genetic material from more than one individual was available (n = 69), intraspecific divergences were 1.3% on average, although divergences greater than the customary 2% barcode threshold occurred within 15 species. High intraspecific divergences could indicate species with a high degree of internal genetic structure or possibly even cryptic species, although introgression is also probable in some of these taxa. Divergences between species of the same genus were 6.4% on average; however, 49 species were <2% divergent from congeners. Low levels of interspecific divergence could be caused by recent evolutionary radiations coupled with the low rates of mtDNA evolution previously observed in turtles. Complementing distance-based barcoding with character-based methods for identifying diagnostic sets of nucleotides provided better resolution in several cases where distance-based methods failed to distinguish species. An online identification engine was created to provide character-based identifications. This study constitutes the first comprehensive barcoding effort for this seriously threatened order.