THE existence of clonally reproducing vertebrates has often served as a foil in attempts to explain the near-ubiquity of sexual reproduction in eukaryotes, but the absence of recombination, with its attendant limitation of new genotypes to those produced through mutations, restricts the adaptive ability of clonal organisms1-3. It has been argued, therefore, that clonal vertebrate taxa have short lifespans4-14. Variation in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) within clonal populations is interpreted instead as reflecting multiple, although limited, independent hybridization events 8-13,15. On the basis of an analysis of an average of 373 nucleotide pairs, we report here that the mtDNA of clonal, hybrid, gynogenetic mole salamanders (Ambystoma, Ambystomatidae) differs by 5% or more from mtDNA of their closest possible sexual relatives (A. jeffersonianum, A. laterale and A. texanum). Assuming usual rates of mtDNA divergence, these lineages have persisted for about 5 million years, far longer than estimated for other clonal vertebrate populations. The low mtDNA variability in the clonal lineages suggests that they have undergone population reductions during the Pleistocene.
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