Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 33, Issue 6, pp 839–853 | Cite as

Does habitat disturbance promote geographical parthenogenesis in whiptail lizards?

  • Bradley J. CosentinoEmail author
  • Robert L. Schooley
  • Brandon T. Bestelmeyer
  • Herman Campos
  • Laura M. Burkett
Original Paper


Sexual and asexual organisms often vary in their distribution and abundances among habitats. These patterns of “geographical parthenogenesis” can shed light on ecological conditions underlying the evolution of sex. Habitat disturbance is hypothesized to be a mechanism that generates geographical parthenogenesis. Parthenogens are predicted to be more prevalent in disturbed habitats than sexuals due to the greater colonizing ability of parthenogens and the tendency of parthenogens to avoid competition with sexuals in undisturbed habitat. We tested whether habitat disturbance (i.e., a rapid state transition between vegetation communities) causes geographical parthenogenesis in whiptail lizards in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico. Non-experimental approaches have shown the parthenogenetic Aspidoscelis uniparens commonly occurs in habitat with a history of vegetation disturbance from shrub removal, whereas the sexual A. marmorata occurs more often in undisturbed shrubland habitat. We used a field experiment replicated across 16 sites to test whether the parthenogen A. uniparens and sexual A. marmorata differ in their response to vegetation disturbance from shrub removal. The sites were distributed across a broad region of southern New Mexico, and we used a paired design with each site including a shrub-removal treatment and a control on 9-ha plots. Using a co-abundance model that accounts for imperfect detection, we found the parthenogen A. uniparens and sexual A. marmorata both responded positively to disturbance, but only when the congener was rare. Our results are inconsistent with the idea that parthenogens exploit disturbed habitat to avoid competition with sexuals. In our study system, A. uniparens often dominates older disturbed sites, especially two decades or more after shrub removal. Collectively, these results indicate geographical parthenogenesis emerges from biotic interactions in heterogeneous landscapes that include disturbed habitats used by sexual and asexual species alike.


Competition Desert Disturbance Evolution of sex Niche partitioning Parthenogenesis 



This work is supported by Agroecosystem Management Program Grant No. 2016-67019-25212 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Shrub removal treatments were applied by the United States Bureau of Land Management—Las Cruces. Because the work involved only remote observation of lizards through binoculars, without disturbance, no ethics permits were required under local laws. We thank S. Callahan and Q. Johnson for field assistance and B. Fischman and A. Tilquin for comments on the manuscript. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Author contributions

BJC, RLS, and BTB designed the study. HC and LMB collected the data. BJC analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript. All authors edited the manuscript.

Supplementary material

10682_2019_10006_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (120 kb)
Supplementary file1 (PDF 120 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bradley J. Cosentino
    • 1
    Email author
  • Robert L. Schooley
    • 2
  • Brandon T. Bestelmeyer
    • 3
  • Herman Campos
    • 3
  • Laura M. Burkett
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of BiologyHobart and William Smith CollegesGenevaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental SciencesUniversity of IllinoisUrbanaUSA
  3. 3.USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental RangeNew Mexico State UniversityLas CrucesUSA

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