Conservation Genetics

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 745–757 | Cite as

Molecular systematics of the critically-endangered North American spinymussels (Unionidae: Elliptio and Pleurobema) and description of Parvaspina gen. nov.

  • Michael A. Perkins
  • Nathan A. Johnson
  • Michael M. Gangloff
Research Article


Despite being common in numerous marine bivalve lineages, lateral spines are extremely rare among freshwater bivalves (Bivalvia: Unionidae), with only three known species characterized by the presence of spines: Elliptio spinosa, Elliptio steinstansana, and Pleurobema collina. All three taxa are endemic to the Atlantic Slope of southeastern North America, critically endangered, and protected by the US Endangered Species Act. Currently, these species are recognized in two genera and remain a source of considerable taxonomic confusion. Because spines are rare in freshwater mussels and restricted to a small region of North America, we hypothesized that spinymussels represent a monophyletic group. We sequenced two mtDNA gene fragments (COI and ND1) and a fragment of the nuclear ITS-1 locus from >70 specimens. Bayesian and maximum-likelihood phylogenetic reconstructions suggest that the spinymussels do not comprise a monophyletic group. Elliptio steinstansana is sister to P. collina, forming a monophyletic clade that was estimated to have diverged from its most recent ancestor in the late Miocene and is distinct from both Elliptio and Pleurobema; we describe a new genus (Parvaspina gen. nov.) to reflect this relationship. Additionally, E. spinosa forms a monophyletic clade that diverged from members of the core Elliptio lineage in the mid-Pliocene. Furthermore, E. spinosa is genetically divergent from the other spinymussel species, suggesting that spines, while extremely rare in freshwater mussels worldwide, may have evolved independently in two bivalve lineages. Recognizing the genetic distinctiveness and inter-generic relationships of the spinymussels is an important first step towards effectively managing these imperiled species and lays the groundwork for future conservation genetics studies.


Phylogenetics Taxonomy Endemic species Divergence time 



The authors would like to thank Rachael Hoch, Jess Jones, Rob Nichols, William Russ, Lynn Siefferman, Jim Williams, and Jason Wisniewski for their assistance with sample collection and/or comments during the preparation of this manuscript. This research was funded in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Supplementary material

10592_2017_924_MOESM1_ESM.docx (16 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 15 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael A. Perkins
    • 1
    • 2
  • Nathan A. Johnson
    • 3
  • Michael M. Gangloff
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyAppalachian State UniversityBooneUSA
  2. 2.North Carolina Wildlife Resources CommissionMarionUSA
  3. 3.Wetland and Aquatic Research CenterUnited States Geological SurveyGainesvilleUSA

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