, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 1229-1242
Date: 17 May 2011

Patterns of genetic diversity in the critically endangered Central American river turtle: human influence since the Mayan age?

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We conducted a phylogeographic analysis of the strictly aquatic and critically endangered Central American river turtle, Dermatemys mawii, as part of a conservation management program for the species. We sampled 238 individuals from 15 different localities throughout the species range. Using sequence fragments from the mtDNA Cyt b and ND4 genes, we identified 16 different haplotypes. Overall, our results reveal a signal of phylogeographic structure throughout the range, which appears to have been secondarily blurred by extensive gene flow. Notably, this also applies to genetic structuring across three major hydrological basins that pose biogeographic breaks in other aquatic taxa. Divergence times of mtDNA haplotypes in D. mawii suggest that the main lineages split in the Pliocene–Pleistocene (3.73–0.227 MA) and demographic tests indicate that the species has undergone drastic demographic size fluctuations since this time period. One ancient haplotype (1D) was found to exhibit sequence divergence of up to 2% from other haplogroups. Divergence of this magnitude is indicative of species level differentiation in other turtle genera. Haplotype 1D was found in only two localities, Sarstun and Salinas, but specimens with other haplotypes were also found in those localities. It is not known whether the individuals with the 1D haplotype interbreed with non-1D individuals. Our results suggest that human activity, such as harvesting and long distance transport of animals, may have influenced the current patterns of genetic diversity. For more than 2000 years, D. mawii has been consumed by people from Middle American cultures, and the archeological record contains strong evidence that the Mayans transported animals between villages and far away from their natural distribution range. Therefore, the large-scale pattern of haplotype sharing even across hydrological barriers, the observed low haplotype diversity in some populations and the contemporary absence of a pronounced phylogeographic pattern is likely due to a combination of population expansions, gene flow, extensive human-mediated-movements and recent bottlenecks resulting from over-harvesting.