Journal of Insect Conservation

, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 37–51 | Cite as

Considering evolutionary processes in the use of single-locus genetic data for conservation, with examples from the Lepidoptera

  • Matthew L. ForisterEmail author
  • Chris C. Nice
  • James A. Fordyce
  • Zachariah Gompert
  • Arthur M. Shapiro
Original Paper


The increasing popularity of molecular taxonomy will undoubtedly have a major impact on the practice of conservation biology. The appeal of such approaches is undeniable since they will clearly be an asset in rapid biological assessments of poorly known taxa or unexplored areas, and for discovery of cryptic biodiversity. However, as an approach for diagnosing units for conservation, some caution is warranted. The essential issue is that mitochondrial DNA variation is unlikely to be causally related to, and thus correlated with, ecologically important components of fitness. This is true for DNA barcoding, molecular taxonomy in general, or any technique that relies on variation at a single, presumed neutral locus. Given that natural selection operates on a time scale that is often much more rapid than the rates of mutation and allele frequency changes due to genetic drift, neutral genetic variation at a single locus can be a poor predictor of adaptive variation within or among species. Furthermore, reticulate processes, such as introgressive hybridization, may also constrain the utility of molecular taxonomy to accurately detect significant units for conservation. A survey of published genetic data from the Lepidoptera indicates that these problems may be more prevalent than previously suspected. Molecular approaches must be used with caution for conservation genetics which is best accomplished using large sample sizes over extensive geography in addition to data from multiple loci.


DNA barcoding Molecular taxonomy COI Lineage sorting Hybridization 



An early version of this paper was improved by comments from N. J. Sanders, F. A. H. Sperling, an anonymous reviewer, and the EEB discussion group at Texas State.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew L. Forister
    • 1
    Email author
  • Chris C. Nice
    • 2
  • James A. Fordyce
    • 3
  • Zachariah Gompert
    • 2
  • Arthur M. Shapiro
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental ScienceUniversity of NevadaRenoUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biology, Population and Conservation Biology ProgramTexas State UniversitySan MarcosUSA
  3. 3.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of TennesseeKnoxvilleUSA
  4. 4.Section of Evolution and Ecology, Center for Population Biology, Storer HallUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

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