DNA-DNA Hybridization Evidence for the Recent Origin of Marmots and Ground Squirrels (Rodentia: Sciuridae)

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A molecular analysis, based on DNA/DNA hybridization experiments, examined seven species of the sciurid tribe Marmotini, in order to evaluate their evolutionary relationships. The branching pattern obtained from a neighbor-joining analysis and least-squares methods indicates that spermophiles and marmots are closely related. This result is in agreement with previous studies based on biochemical data which have suggested a Miospermophilus origin of Marmota (like Spermophilus), instead of the Protospermophilus origin usually proposed by paleontology. Using a molecular time scale calibrated by the fossil record of Sciurus (used here as an outgroup), we estimate the marmot/ground squirrel divergence at 6 My, at the same time as the major lineages of ground squirrels diverged from each other. Consequently, the species of Marmota appear as one of the numerous specialized forms derived from the explosive radiation of the Spermophilus lineage in the late Miocene.

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