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The Caribbean slipper spurge Euphorbia tithymaloides: the first example of a ring species in plants

N. Ivalú Cacho and David A. Baum
Proceedings: Biological Sciences
Vol. 279, No. 1742 (7 September 2012), pp. 3377-3383
Published by: Royal Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41623657
Page Count: 7
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Abstract

A ring species arises when a parental population expands around an area of unsuitable habitat in such a way that when the two fronts meet they behave as distinct species while still being connected through a series of intergrading populations. Ring species offer great possibilities for studying the forces causing species divergence (e.g. the nature of pre-zygotic or post-zygotic reproductive isolation) or helping to maintain species integrity (e.g. reinforcement). Yet, ring species are extremely rare, and have only been documented convincingly in animals. Here, we present phylogenetic analyses of two nuclear gene regions from the Caribbean slipper spurge (Euphorbia tithymaloides) species complex that provide evidence that this group forms a ring species. These data show that the species complex originated in the area where Mexico and Guatemala meet, and expanded around the Caribbean basin along two distinct fronts: one eastward through the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Greater Antilles (GA); one southeastward through northern South America and then northward to the Lesser Antilles and eastern GA. The two terminal forms co-occur in the Virgin Islands and appear to be morphologically and ecologically distinct. Thus, our results suggest that Euphorbia tithymaloides is the first compelling example of a ring species in plants.

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