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Mitochondrial DNA evolution at a turtle's pace: evidence for low genetic variability and reduced microevolutionary rate in the Testudines.


Evidence is compiled suggesting a slowdown in mean microevolutionary rate for turtle mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Within each of six species or species complexes of Testudines, representing six genera and three taxonomic families, sequence divergence estimates derived from restriction assays are consistently lower than expectations based on either (a) the dates of particular geographic barriers with which significant mtDNA genetic clades appear associated or (b) the magnitudes of sequence divergence between mtDNA clades in nonturtle species that otherwise exhibit striking phylogeographic concordance with the genetic partitions in turtles. Magnitudes of the inferred rate slowdowns average eightfold relative to the "conventional" mtDNA clock calibration of 2%/Myr sequence divergence between higher animal lineages. Reasons for the postulated deceleration remain unknown, but two intriguing correlates are (a) the exceptionally long generation length most turtles and (b) turtles' low metabolic rate. Both factors have been suspected of influencing evolutionary rates in the DNA sequences of some other vertebrate groups. Uncertainities about the dates of cladogenetic events in these Testudines leave room for alternatives to the slowdown interpretation, but consistency in the direction of the inferred pattern, across several turtle species and evolutionary settings, suggests the need for caution in acceptance of a universal mtDNA-clock calibration for higher animals.

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