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Seri Indian traditional knowledge and molecular biology agree: no express train for island-hopping spiny-tailed iguanas in the Sea of Cortés

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Abstract Aim 

The role of human activities in species biogeography can be difficult to identify, but in some cases molecular techniques can be used to test hypotheses of human-mediated dispersal. A currently accepted hypothesis states that humans mediated the divergence of two species of spiny-tailed iguanas in the Ctenosaura hemilopha species complex, namely C. conspicuosa and C. nolascensis, which occupy islands in the Sea of Cortés between the peninsula of Baja California and mainland Mexico. We test an alternative hypothesis that follows the traditional knowledge of the Seri Indians and states that the divergence of these species was not mediated by humans. Location 

Mexico, including Baja California, Sonoran and Sinaloan coastal regions, and Isla San Esteban and Isla San Pedro Nolasco in the Sea of Cortés. Methods 

We analysed mitochondrial (cytochrome b and cytochrome c oxidase subunit III) DNA sequences from four species in the C. hemilopha species complex. Maximum parsimony and Bayesian inference were used to infer matriarchal genealogical relationships between the species and several outgroup taxa. Bayesian methods were used to estimate divergence times for the major nodes on the trees based on previously published, fossil-calibrated priors. Results 

Our analysis indicated that lineages within the C. hemilopha species complex diverged long before human colonization of the Americas. The divergence of C. nolascensis and C. conspicuosa could not be attributed to Seri translocations. The matriarchal genealogy of the species complex currently defies a simple biogeographical interpretation. Main conclusions 

We conclude that humans did not mediate the divergence of C. nolascensis and C. conspicuosa. This conclusion is consistent with the traditional knowledge of the Seri people. These results demonstrate the utility of molecular techniques in investigating potential cases of human-mediated dispersal of plants and animals, and reinforce the importance of considering traditional knowledge in the formation of scientific hypotheses and the interpretation of results.

Keywords: Baja California; Ctenosaura conspicuosa; Ctenosaura hemilopha; Ctenosaura nolascensis; Iguanidae; genealogy; human-mediated dispersal; island biogeography; molecular clock; reptiles

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Laboratorio de Herpetología, Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, AP 70-153, CP 04510, México, DF, Mexico 2: Department of Natural History, Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON M5S 2C6, Canada

Publication date: 2011-02-01

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