Ecology and evolution

Potential merger of ancient lineages in a passerine bird discovered based on evidence from host-specific ectoparasites.

PMID 26380702


The merger of formerly isolated lineages is hypothesized to occur in vertebrates under certain conditions. However, despite many demonstrated instances of introgression between taxa in secondary contact, examples of lineage mergers are rare. Preliminary mtDNA sequencing of a Malagasy passerine, Xanthomixis zosterops (Passeriformes: Bernieridae), indicated a possible instance of merging lineages. We tested the hypothesis that X. zosterops lineages are merging by comparing mtDNA sequence and microsatellite data, as well as mtDNA sequence data from host-specific feather lice in the genus Myrsidea (Phthiraptera: Menoponidae). Xanthomixis zosterops comprises four deeply divergent, broadly sympatric, cryptic mtDNA clades that likely began diverging approximately 3.6 million years ago. Despite this level of divergence, the microsatellite data indicate that the X. zosterops mtDNA clades are virtually panmictic. Three major phylogroups of Myrsidea were found, supporting previous allopatry of the X. zosterops clades. In combination, the datasets from X. zosterops and its Myrsidea document a potential merger of previously allopatric lineages that likely date to the Pliocene. This represents the first report of sympatric apparent hybridization among more than two terrestrial vertebrate lineages. Further, the mtDNA phylogeographic pattern of X. zosterops, namely the syntopy of more than two deeply divergent cryptic clades, appears to be a novel scenario among vertebrates. We highlight the value of gathering multiple types of data in phylogeographic studies to contribute to the study of vertebrate speciation.