Geogenetic Patterns in Mouse Lemurs (Genus Microcebus) Reveal the Ghosts of Madagascar's Forests Past


Phylogeographic analysis can be described as the study of the geological and climatological processes that have produced contemporary geographic distributions of populations and species. Here, we attempt to understand how the dynamic process of landscape change on Madagascar has shaped the distribution of a targeted clade of mouse lemurs (genus Microcebus) and, conversely, how phylogenetic and population genetic patterns in these small primates can reciprocally advance our understanding of Madagascar's prehuman environment. The degree to which human activity has impacted the natural plant communities of Madagascar is of critical and enduring interest. Today, the eastern rainforests are separated from the dry deciduous forests of the west by a large expanse of presumed anthropogenic grassland savanna, dominated by the Family Poaceae, that blankets most of the Central Highlands. Although there is firm consensus that anthropogenic activities have transformed the original vegetation through agricultural and pastoral practices, the degree to which closed-canopy forest extended from the east to the west remains debated. Phylogenetic and population genetic patterns in a five-species clade of mouse lemurs suggest that longitudinal dispersal across the island was readily achieved throughout the Pleistocene, apparently ending at ∼55 ka. By examining patterns of both inter- and intraspecific genetic diversity in mouse lemur species found in the eastern, western, and Central Highland zones, we conclude that the natural environment of the Central Highlands would have been mosaic, consisting of a matrix of wooded savanna that formed a transitional zone between the extremes of humid eastern and dry western forest types.

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Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, v. 113, no. 29, p. 8049-8056.

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This study was funded by a grant from the Duke Tropical Conservation Initiative (to A.D.Y.) and by National Science Foundation Grant DEB-1354610 (to D.W.W. and A.D.Y.).