Phylogeography and climatic niche evolution in live oaks (Quercus series Virentes) from the tropics to the temperate zone

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Antonio Gonzalez-Rodriguez, Annette Pahlich, Kari Koehler, Nicholas Deacon

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105 Scopus citations


Aim We investigated the phylogeography, geographical variation in leaf morphology, freezing tolerance and climatic niches of two widespread evergreen sister oak species (Quercus) in the series Virentes. Location South-eastern USA, Mexico and Central America. Methods Nuclear microsatellites and non-recombining nuclear and chloroplast DNA sequences were obtained from trees throughout the range of two sister lineages of live oaks, represented by Quercus virginiana in the temperate zone and Q. oleoides in the tropics. Divergence times were estimated for the two major geographical and genetic breaks. Differentiation in leaf morphology, analysed from field specimens, was compared with the molecular data. Freezing sensitivities of Q. virginiana and Q. oleoides populations were assessed in common garden experiments. Results The geographical break between Q. virginiana and Q. oleoides was associated with strong genetic differentiation of possible early Pleistocene origin and with differentiation in freezing sensitivity, climatic envelopes and leaf morphology. A second important geographical and genetic break within Q. oleoides between Costa Rica and the rest of Central America showed a mid-Pleistocene divergence time and no differentiation in leaf morphology. Population genetic differentiation was greater but genetic diversity was lower within the temperate Q. virginiana than within the tropical Q. oleoides, and genetic breaks largely corresponded to breaks in leaf morphology. Main conclusions Two major breaks, one between Mexico and the USA at the boundary of the two species, and a more recent one within Q. oleoides between Honduras and Costa Rica, implicate climatic changes as potential causes. The latter break may be associated with the formation of the Cordillera de Guanacaste, which was followed by seasonal changes in precipitation. In the former case, an 'out of the tropics' scenario is hypothesized, in which the acquisition of freezing tolerance in Q. virginiana permitted colonization of and expansion in the temperate zone, while differences in climatic tolerances between the species limited secondary contact. More pronounced Pleistocene changes in climate and sea level in the south-eastern USA relative to coastal Mexico and Central America may explain the greater population differentiation within temperate Q. virginiana and greater genetic diversity in tropical Q. oleoides. These patterns are predicted to hold for other taxa that span temperate and tropical zones of North and Central America.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)962-981
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Central America, chloroplast DNA sequences
  • Climatic niches
  • Freezing tolerance
  • Leaf morphology
  • Nuclear DNA
  • Pleistocen glacial cycles
  • Sea-level rise
  • South-eastern North America
  • Species boundaries


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