Is geography an accurate predictor of evolutionary history in the millipede family Xystodesmidae?
Means, Jackson C.
Marek, Paul E.
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For the past several centuries, millipede taxonomists have used the morphology of male copulatory structures (modified legs called gonopods), which are strongly variable and suggestive of species-level differences, as a source to understand taxon relationships. Millipedes in the family Xystodesmidae are blind, dispersal-limited and have narrow habitat requirements. Therefore, geographical proximity may instead be a better predictor of evolutionary relationship than morphology, especially since gonopodal anatomy is extremely divergent and similarities may be masked by evolutionary convergence. Here we provide a phylogenetics-based test of the power of morphological versus geographical character sets for resolving phylogenetic relationships in xystodesmid millipedes. Molecular data from 90 species-group taxa in the family were included in a six-gene phylogenetic analysis to provide the basis for comparing trees generated from these alternative character sets. The molecular phylogeny was compared to topologies representing three hypotheses: (1) a prior classification formulated using morphological and geographical data, (2) hierarchical groupings derived from Euclidean geographical distance, and (3) one based solely on morphological data. Euclidean geographical distance was not found to be a better predictor of evolutionary relationship than the prior classification, the latter of which was the most similar to the molecular topology. However, all three of the alternative topologies were highly divergent (Bayes factor >10) from the molecular topology, with the tree inferred exclusively from morphology being the most divergent. The results of this analysis show that a high degree of morphological convergence from substantial gonopod shape divergence generated spurious phylogenetic relationships. These results indicate the impact that a high degree of morphological homoplasy may have had on prior treatments of the family. Using the results of our phylogenetic analysis, we make several changes to the classification of the family, including transferring the rare state-threatened species Sigmoria whiteheadi Shelley, 1986 to the genus Apheloria Chamberlin, 1921—a relationship not readily apparent based on morphology alone. We show that while gonopod differences are a premier source of taxonomic characters to diagnose species pairwise, the traits should be viewed critically as taxonomic features uniting higher levels.