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Testing vicariance: melanopsid snails and Neogene tectonics in the Western Mediterranean

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Vicariance on a microplate dispersed by the formation of the Western Mediterranean is the probable origin of Melanopsis etrusca Villa in Brot, the only melanopsid (Gastopoda: Melanopsidae) living in the Italian Peninsula. It is distantly related to extant melanopsids in Iberia and Morocco, and is restricted to thermal springs in the Maremma of southern Tuscany. This area was an island throughout the Miocene, inferred to have become detached geographically from the Corso—Sardinian block. Alternative explanations conflict with geological, paleontological, ecological and systematic evidence. In the geologically young Italian Peninsula fossil freshwater melanopsids are known only from Lower Pleistocene sites located around the area occupied by living populations. Their similarity to extant specimens supports the hypothesis that they represent the same lineage, having expanded its range during a brief, favourable period. Introduction of M. etrusca by humans, birds or wind is most improbable given its distinctness, similarity to local fossils, and inability for passive dispersal. Long-distance dispersal along brackish lagoons during the late Messinian conflicts with the inferred inability of melanopsids living there to colonize freshwater habitats. Indeed, there are ecological, phylogenetic and geological reasons against invoking the Messinian salinity crisis in order to explain the distribution of most taxa. Other freshwater taxa show distribution patterns similar to that of living and fossil melanopsids. However, congruent area cladograms or generalized tracks may not constitute reliable evaluators of biogeographical hypotheses. The detection of vicariance, as that of any other cause, requires robust reconstructions of the past. By pointing at areas of endemism that deserve urgent action, biogeography can provide a contribution to conservation.

Keywords: Melanopsidae; Messinian; Western Mediterranean; mass extinction; vicariance

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Institut Mediterrani d'Estudis Avan├žats (CSIC-UIB), Ctra. de Valldemossa km 7.5, 07071 Palma de Mallorca, Illes Balears, Spain

Publication date: May 1, 1998


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