Pleistocene speciation in the genus populus (salicaceae)

Nicholas D. Levsen, Peter Tiffin, Matthew S. Olson

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79 Scopus citations


The macroevolutionary consequences of recent climate change remain controversial, and there is little paleobotanical or morphological evidence that Pleistocene (1.8-0.12 Ma) glacial cycles acted as drivers of speciation, especially among lineages with long generation times, such as trees. We combined genetic and ecogeographic data from 2 closely related North American tree species, Populus balsamifera and P. trichocarpa (Salicacaeae), to determine if their divergence coincided with and was possibly caused by Pleistocene climatic events. We analyzed 32 nuclear loci from individuals of P. balsamifera and P. trichocarpa to produce coalescent-based estimates of the divergence time between the 2 species. We coupled the coalescent analyses with paleodistribution models to assess the influence of climate change on species' range. Furthermore, measures of niche overlap were used to investigate patterns of ecological differentiation between species. We estimated the divergence date of P. balsamifera and P. trichocarpa at approximately 75 Ka, which corresponds closely with the onset of Marine Isotope Stage 4 (∼76 Ka) and a rapid increase in global ice volume. Significance tests of niche overlap, in conjunction with genetic estimates of migration, suggested that speciation occurred in allopatry, possibly resulting from the environmental effects of Pleistocene glacial cycles. Our results indicate that the divergence of keystone tree species, which have shaped community diversity in northern North American ecosystems, was recent and may have been a consequence of Pleistocene-era glaciation and climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)401-412
Number of pages12
JournalSystematic Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
FUNDING This project was funded by the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Award DBI-0701911. The UAF Life Sciences Informatics CORE is supported by grant number RR016466 from the National Center for Research Resources, a component of National Institutes of Health.


  • Glaciation
  • North America
  • isolation-with-migration
  • species distribution model


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