, Volume 92, Issue 3, pp 121–127 | Cite as

Phylogeography of Australia’s king brown snake (Pseudechis australis) reveals Pliocene divergence and Pleistocene dispersal of a top predator

  • Ulrich KuchEmail author
  • J. Scott Keogh
  • John Weigel
  • Laurie A. Smith
  • Dietrich Mebs
Short Communication


King brown snakes or mulga snakes (Pseudechis australis) are the largest and among the most dangerous and wide-ranging venomous snakes in Australia and New Guinea. They occur in diverse habitats, are important predators, and exhibit considerable morphological variation. We infer the relationships and historical biogeography of P. australis based on phylogenetic analysis of 1,249 base pairs from the mitochondrial cytochrome b, NADH dehydrogenase subunit 4 and three adjacent tRNA genes using Bayesian, maximum-likelihood, and maximum-parsimony methods. All methods reveal deep phylogenetic structure with four strongly supported clades comprising snakes from New Guinea (I), localities all over Australia (II), the Kimberleys of Western Australia (III), and north-central Australia (IV), suggesting a much more ancient radiation than previously believed. This conclusion is robust to different molecular clock estimations indicating divergence in Pliocene or Late Miocene, after landbridge dispersal to New Guinea had occurred. While members of clades I, III and IV are medium-sized, slender snakes, those of clade II attain large sizes and a robust build, rendering them top predators in their ecosystems. Genetic differentiation within clade II is low and haplotype distribution largely incongruent with geography or colour morphs, suggesting Pleistocene dispersal and recent ecomorph evolution. Significant haplotype diversity exists in clades III and IV, implying that clade IV comprises two species. Members of clade II are broadly sympatric with members of both northern Australian clades. Thus, our data support the recognition of at least five species from within P. australis (auct.) under various criteria. We discuss biogeographical, ecological and medical implications of our findings.


Late Pleistocene Late Miocene Venomous Snake Relative Rate Test Molecular Clock Estimation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank R. Hoser, R. MacCulloch and R. W. Murphy (Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto), R. Pails, R. Sadlier (Australian Museum, Sydney) and F. B. Yuwono for tissue samples, and L. Driver and B. Maryan (Western Australian Museum, Perth) for photographs. J. S. K. thanks the Australian Research Council for ongoing support. All animal care and experimental procedures complied with the current laws of the state or country where they were performed.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ulrich Kuch
    • 1
    Email author
  • J. Scott Keogh
    • 2
  • John Weigel
    • 3
  • Laurie A. Smith
    • 4
  • Dietrich Mebs
    • 1
  1. 1.Zentrum der RechtsmedizinKlinikum der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-UniversitätFrankfurt am MainGermany
  2. 2.School of Botany and ZoologyAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  3. 3.Australian Reptile ParkGosfordAustralia
  4. 4.Department of Terrestrial VertebratesMuseum of Natural SciencePerthAustralia

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