Cryptic diversity and morphological convergence in threatened species of fossorial skinks in the genus Scelotes (Squamata: Scincidae) from the Western Cape Coast of South Africa: Implications for species boundaries, digit reduction and conservation

Heideman N.J.L. ; Mulcahy D.G. ; Sites Jr. J.W. ; Hendricks M.G.J. ; Daniels S.R. (2011-10-13)

Article in Press

We investigated the evolutionary relationships among populations of two threatened Red Data Book fossorial skinks, Scelotes gronovii and Scelotes kasneri, along the Western Cape Coast of South Africa. The genus Scelotes shows considerable variation in limb and digit reduction. We sampled four localities purported to contain S. gronovii and seven of S. kasneri, encompassing all of each species' limited distribution. Each of these species lack forelimbs, and differ by the number of digits on the hind limbs, among other morphological characters; S. gronovii bears a single digit and S. kasneri bears two digits on the hind limbs. Sequence data obtained from three mtDNA (16S ribosomal RNA, cytochrome b, and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide dehydrogenase 1 unit; 2035 bp ttl.) and two nuclear (dynein axonemal heavy chain 3 and the natural killer tumor recognition; 1848 bp ttl.) gene regions were used to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships among the two focal species and several other co-distributed species (Scelotes bipes, Scelotes montispectus, and Scelotes sexlineatus). Phylogenetic results (Bayesian and parsimony) revealed that several populations previously considered S. kasneri actually belong to other species, and others are paraphyletic with respect to one another. Additionally, populations of S. gronovii were also found to be paraphyletic, with populations south of the Berg River supported as sister to S. bipes, and populations north of the Berg River sister the remaining sampled species. Our results require a redefinition of S. sexlineatus to encompass populations morphologically convergent with S. kasneri and restrict the ranges of the already threatened S. kasneri and S. gronovii even further. The paraphyly of S. gronovii and the placement of each clade as sister to clades of species bearing two digits on the hind limbs suggests that digit loss has occurred at least twice in this group. © 2011.

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