The tassel-eared squirrel, Sciurus aberti, is separated into six subspecies which occupy restricted and comparable habitats in ponderosa pine forests in the southwestern United States and Mexico. These forests and squirrel populations are currently isolated by large arid areas and, as such, S. aberti appears to offer an example of incipient speciation. We sequenced the complete mitochondrial cytochrome b gene to construct a molecular phylogeny for S. aberti and to determine whether subspecific genetic structure and geographic patterns are correlative. Twenty alleles were identified among 612 squirrels throughout the species′ range. Nucleotide divergence between alleles ranged from 0.009 to 0.0233, whereas average sequence divergence between S. aberti and an outgroup species, Sciurus niger, was 0.1823. Neighbor-joining and maximum parsimony analyses identified three major genetic assemblages composed of the following subspecies groups: (1) barberi and durangi; (2) aberti and kaibabensis; and (3) ferreus. The chuscensis samples were the only population with divergent sequences; one sequence was identical to an aberti sequence and a second unique sequence clustered with the ferreus sequences. The presence of divergent sequences in the chuscensis population, coupled with its central geographic position between aberti and ferreus, suggests a relatively recent influx of aberti mtDNA. Estimates of the times separating sequences in subspecies within different groups ranged from 0.94 to 1.52 × 106 years, based on a rate estimate of 7.15 × 10-9 substitutions/year/site. The limited divergence observed between (1) aberti and kaibabensis as well as (2) barberi and durangi suggests relatively recent separations of subspecies within each assemblage. In fact, populations defined morphologically and geographically as ferreus exhibited greater sequence divergence than the aforementioned groups, identifying ferreus as the subspecies with the greatest genetic substructuring. The levels of cytochrome b divergence observed for the three distinct groups argues against a significant role for late Pleistocene glaciation in dispersal of this particular species; however, the proposed intermixing of aberti and chuscensis populations may well have been associated with such glacial events. Nucleotide diversity within subspecies ranked chuscensis ≫ aberti > barberi (equivalent to) kaibabensis (equivalent to) ferreus subpopulations; the relatively high level of diversity of chuscensis samples likely results from the apparent introgression of an aberti haplotype. The comparative levels of diversity in the aberti, barberi, kaibabensis, and ferreus sample populations do not correlate with respective habitat size (and presumably population size), suggesting that relatively recent forces, e.g., glaciation and inconsistent timber harvests, may have influenced diversity in these populations without apparent alterations in population size.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Molecular Biology