Detecting cryptic speciation in the widespread and morphologically conservative carpet chameleon (Furcifer lateralis) of Madagascar

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Species delimitation within recently evolved groups can be challenging because species may be difficult to distinguish morphologically. Following the General Lineage Concept, we apply a multiple evidence approach to assess species limits within the carpet chameleon Furcifer lateralis, which is endemic to Madagascar and exported in large numbers for the pet trade. Cryptic speciation within F. lateralis was considered likely because this species (1) has a vast distribution, (2) occupies exceptionally diverse habitats and (3) exhibits subtle regional differences in morphology. Phylogenetic trees reconstructed using nuclear and mitochondrial genes recovered three well-supported clades corresponding with geography. Morphological results based on canonical variates analysis show that these clades exhibit subtle differences in head casque morphology. Ecological niche modelling results found that these phylogenetic groups also occupy unique environmental space and exhibit patterns of regional endemism typical of other endemic reptiles. Combined, our findings provide diverse yet consistent evidence for the existence of three species. Consequently, we elevate the subspecies F. lateralis major to species rank and name a new species distributed in northern and western Madagascar. Initial ecological divergence, associated with speciation of F. lateralis in humid eastern habitat, fits the Ecographic Constraint model for species diversification in Madagascar. By contrast, the second speciation event provides some support for the Riverine Barrier model, with the Mangoky River possibly causing initial isolation between species. These findings thus support two contrasting models of speciation within closely related species and demonstrate the utility of applying a combined-evidence approach for detecting cryptic speciation.

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