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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2018

Discordance between genomic divergence and phenotypic variation in a rapidly evolving avian genus (Motacilla)

Harris, Rebecca B.; Alstrom, Per; Odeen, Anders; Leache, Adam D.


Generally, genotypes and phenotypes are expected to be spatially congruent; however, in widespread species complexes with few barriers to dispersal, multiple contact zones, and limited reproductive isolation, discordance between phenotypes and phylogeographic groups is more probable. Wagtails (Motacilla) are a genus of birds with striking plumage pattern variation across the Old World. Up to 13 subspecies are recognized within a single species, yet previous studies using mitochondrial DNA have supported polyphyletic phylogeographic groups that are inconsistent with subspecies plumage characteristics. In this study, we investigate the link between phenotypes and genotype by taking a phylogenetic approach. We use genome-wide SNPs, nuclear introns, and mitochondrial DNA to estimate population structure, isolation by distance, and species relationships. Together, our genetic sampling includes complete species-level sampling and comprehensive coverage of the three most phenotypically diverse Palearctic species. Our study provides strong evidence for species-level patterns of differentiation, however population-level differentiation is less pronounced. SNPs provide a robust estimate of species-level relationships, which are mostly corroborated by a combined analysis of mtDNA and nuclear introns (the first time-calibrated species tree for the genus). However, the mtDNA tree is strongly incongruent and is considered to misrepresent the species phylogeny. The extant wagtail lineages originated during the Pliocene and the Eurasian lineage underwent rapid diversification during the Pleistocene. Three of four widespread Eurasian species exhibit an east-west divide that contradicts both subspecies taxonomy and phenotypic variation. Indeed, SNPs fail to distinguish between phenotypically distinct subspecies within the M. alba and M. flava complexes, and instead support geographical regions, each of which is home to two or more different looking subspecies. This is a major step towards our understanding of wagtail phylogeny compared to previous analyses of fewer species and considerably less sequence data.


Phylogenetics; Genetic differentiation; Plumage divergence; Mito-nuclear discordance

Published in

Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
2018, Volume: 120, pages: 183-195

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      Evolutionary Biology

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