One of the important contributions genetic studies have made to conservation is the ability to resolve taxonomy and define relationships among populations. However, this can be complicated when species exhibit hybridization. Hybridization can be an important part of the evolutionary process and a critical component in a species ability to adapt to a changing environment. Most hybrid zones are observed at ecotones between two distinct habitats and this may be important in defining the role of hybrid zones in the evolutionary process. I examined hybridization among the three distinct lineages of desert tortoises in the genus Gopherus. An important aspect of this study system is the presence of areas of overlap between divergent lineages of desert tortoise which allowed me to test hypotheses about which forces influence these taxonomic boundaries. Specifically, I tested hypotheses about the contribution of physical vs. ecological segregation and the relative importance of isolation and gene flow in the formation of these disparate desert tortoise lineages. I used mtDNA sequence data and 25 microsatellite loci to perform Bayesian clustering, clinal analyses and habitat suitability modeling to infer population structure and influence of landscape features at each contact zone. In both instances, I observed ecological niche partitioning and limited hybridization at ecotones. I then used mtDNA and four nDNA loci to perform a multi-locus phylogenetic analysis to estimate the species tree among desert tortoise lineages and tested for ancestral admixture with RNA-seq data using demographic inference employed in the software package ∂a∂i. My results validate taxonomic distinction among all three lineages without evidence of ancestral introgression. These data suggest that despite the presence of contemporary hybridization and incomplete reproductive isolation, divergence among these lineages is consistent with species-level differentiation. By clarifying the evolutionary processes that influence the distribution of desert tortoise lineages, this study will directly inform efforts to preserve the evolutionary potential of these threatened species. Ultimately, understanding the evolutionary history of desert tortoises not only clarifies the forces that have driven speciation in this group, but it also contributes to our knowledge of the biogeographic history of the southwestern deserts and how diversity is maintained within them.
|School||THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA|
|Subjects||Wildlife conservation; Genetics; Evolution & development|
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