PloS one

The role of integrative taxonomy in the conservation management of cryptic species: the taxonomic status of endangered earless dragons (Agamidae: Tympanocryptis) in the grasslands of Queensland, Australia.

PMID 25076129


Molecular phylogenetics is increasingly highlighting the prevalence of cryptic species, where morphologically similar organisms have long independent evolutionary histories. When such cryptic species are known to be declining in numbers and are at risk of extinction due to a range of threatening processes, the disjunction between molecular systematics research and conservation policy becomes a significant problem. We investigate the taxonomic status of Tympanocryptis populations in Queensland, which have previously been assigned to T. tetraporophora, using three species delimitation approaches. The taxonomic uncertainties in this species-group are of particular importance in the Darling Downs Earless Dragon (T. cf. tetraporophora), which is ranked as an endangered 'species' of high priority for conservation by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. We undertook a morphological study, integrated with a comprehensive genetic study and species delimitation analyses, to investigate the species status of populations in the region. Phylogenetic analyses of two gene regions (mtDNA: ND2; nuclear: RAG1) revealed high levels of genetic divergence between populations, indicating isolation over long evolutionary time frames, and strongly supporting two independent evolutionary lineages in southeastern Queensland, from the Darling Downs, and a third in the Gulf Region of northern Queensland. Of the three species delimitation protocols used, we found integrative taxonomy the most applicable to this cryptic species complex. Our study demonstrates the utility of integrative taxonomy as a species delimitation approach in cryptic complexes of species with conservation significance, where limited numbers of specimens are available.