How many conservation units are there for the endangered grassland earless dragons?
Species are the most commonly recognised unit for conservation management, yet significant variation can exist below the level of taxonomic recognition and there is a lack of consensus around how a species might be defined. This definition has particular relevance when species designations are used to apportion conservation effort and when definitions might be made through legislation. Here, we use microsatellite DNA analyses to test the proposition that the last remaining populations of the endangered grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) harbour substantial cryptic genetic variation. Our study provides strong evidence that long historical isolation and the recent impacts of urbanization, have led to genetic differentiation in microsatellite DNA allele frequencies and high numbers of private alleles among three genetic clusters. This differentiation is partially concordant with previous mitochondrial DNA analyses, which show the two regions (Canberra and Monaro) where this species exists, to be reciprocally monophyletic, but differs through the identification of a third genetic cluster that splits a northern Canberra cluster from that of southern Canberra. Our data also identify a stark contrast in population genetic structure between clusters such that high levels of genetic structure are evident in the highly urbanised Canberra region but not in the largely rural Monaro region. We conclude that this species, like many reptiles, harbours considerable cryptic variation and currently comprises three distinct and discrete units. These units could be classified as separate species for the purpose of conservation under the relevant Australian and international Acts drawing management appropriate to that status.
KeywordsConservation units Evolutionary significant units Microsatellite DNA Temperate grasslands
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