Phylogenetic and morphologic analyses of a coastal fish reveals a marine biogeographic break of terrestrial origin in the southern Caribbean
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BACKGROUND: Marine allopatric speciation involves interplay between intrinsic organismal properties and extrinsic factors. However, the relative contribution of each depends on the taxon under study and its geographic context. Utilizing sea catfishes in the Cathorops mapale species group, this study tests the hypothesis that both reproductive strategies conferring limited dispersal opportunities and an apparent geomorphologic barrier in the Southern Caribbean have promoted speciation in this group from a little studied area of the world. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Mitochondrial gene sequences were obtained from representatives of the Cathorops mapale species group across its distributional range from Colombia to Venezuela. Morphometric and meristic analyses were also done to assess morphologic variation. Along a approximately 2000 km transect, two major lineages, Cathorops sp. and C. mapale, were identified by levels of genetic differentiation, phylogenetic reconstructions, and morphological analyses. The lineages are separated by approximately 150 km at the Santa Marta Massif (SMM) in Colombia. The northward displacement of the SMM into the Caribbean in the early Pleistocene altered the geomorphology of the continental margin, ultimately disrupting the natural habitat of C. mapale. The estimated approximately 0.86 my divergence of the lineages from a common ancestor coincides with the timing of the SMM displacement at approximately 0.78 my. MAIN CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Results presented here support the hypothesis that organismal properties as well as extrinsic factors lead to diversification of the Cathorops mapale group along the northern coast of South America. While a lack of pelagic larval stages and ecological specialization are forces impacting this process, the identification of the SMM as contributing to allopatric speciation in marine organisms adds to the list of recognized barriers in the Caribbean. Comparative examination of additional Southern Caribbean taxa, particularly those with varying life history traits and dispersal capabilities, will determine the extent by which the SMM has influenced marine phylogeography in the region.