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Was there a second adaptive radiation of giant tortoises in the Indian Ocean? Using mitochondrial DNA to investigate speciation and biogeography of Aldabrachelys (Reptilia, Testudinidae)

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A radiation of five species of giant tortoises (Cylindraspis) existed in the southwest Indian Ocean, on the Mascarene islands, and another (of Aldabrachelys) has been postulated on small islands north of Madagascar, from where at least eight nominal species have been named and up to five have been recently recognized. Of 37 specimens of Madagascan and small-island Aldabrachelys investigated by us, 23 yielded significant portions of a 428-base-pair (bp) fragment of mitochondrial (cytochrome b and tRNA-Glu), including type material of seven nominal species (A. arnoldi, A. dussumieri, A. hololissa, A. daudinii, A. sumierei, A. ponderosa and A. gouffei). These and nearly all the remaining specimens, including 15 additional captive individuals sequenced previously, show little variation. Thirty-three exhibit no differences and the remainder diverge by only 1–4 bp (0.23–0.93%). This contrasts with more widely accepted tortoise species which show much greater inter- and intraspecific differences. The non-Madagascan material examined may therefore only represent a single species and all specimens may come from Aldabra where the common haplotype is known to occur. The present study provides no evidence against the Madagascan origin for Aldabra tortoises suggested by a previous molecular phylogenetic analysis, the direction of marine currents and phylogeography of other reptiles in the area. Ancient mitochondrial DNA from the extinct subfossil A. grandidieri of Madagascar differs at 25 sites (5.8%) from all other Aldabrachelys samples examined here.
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Keywords: Aldabra; Aldabrachelys; Geochelone; Indian Ocean; Madagascar; Seychelles; mtDNA

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Zoology, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK, 2: Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France

Publication date: June 1, 2003

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