, Volume 38, Issue 7, pp 796-809

A Molecular Genetic Study of Hybridization in Four Species of Ground Squirrels (Spermophilus: Rodentia, Sciuridae)

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Abstract

Four species of ground squirrel—yellow (Spermophilus fulvus), russet (S. major), small (S. pygmaeus), and spotted (S. suslicus)—occur in the Volga region. Between S. major and S. pigmaeus, S. major and S. fulvus, and S. major and S. suslicus, sporadic hybridization was reported. Using sequencing and restriction analysis, we have examined the mtDNA C region in 13 yellow, 60 russet, 61 small, 45 spotted ground squirrels, and 9 phenotypic hybrids between these species. It was shown that 43% of S. major individuals had “alien” mitotypes typical of S. fulvus and S. pygmaeus. Alien mitotypes occurred both within and outside sympatric zones. No alien mitotypes were found in 119 animals of the other three species, which suggests that only one parental species (S. major) predominantly participates in backcrosses. Phenotypic hybrids S. fulvus × S. major and S. major × S. pygmaeus) were reliably identified using RAPD–PCR of nuclear DNA. However, we could find no significant traces of hybridization in S. major with alien mitotypes. Analysis of p53 pseudogenes of S. major and S. fulvus that were for the first time described in the present study produced similar results: 59 out of 60 individuals of S. major (including S. major with S. fulvus mitotypes) had only the pseudogene variant specific for S. major. This situation is possible even at low hybridization frequencies (less than 1% according to field observations and 1.4 to 2.7% according to nuclear DNA analysis) if dispersal of S. major from the sympatric zones mainly involved animals that obtained alien mtDNA via backcrossing. The prevalence of animals with alien mitotypes in some S. major populations can be explained by the founder effect. Further studies based on large samples are required for clarifying the discrepancies between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA data.