Climate change and evolution of the New World pitviper genus Agkistrodon (Viperidae)

Michael E. Douglas, Marlis R. Douglas, G. W. Schuett, L. W. Porras

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aim We derived phylogenies, phylogeographies, and population demographies for two North American pitvipers, Agkistrodon contortrix (Linnaeus, 1766) and A. piscivorus (Lacépède, 1789) (Viperidae: Crotalinae), as a mechanism to evaluate the impact of rapid climatic change on these taxa. Location Midwestern and eastern North America. Methods We reconstructed maximum parsimony (MP) and maximum likelihood (ML) relationships based on 846 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) ATPase 8 and ATPase 6 genes sequenced over 178 individuals. We quantified range expansions, demographic histories, divergence dates and potential size differences among clades since their last period of rapid expansion. We used the Shimodaira-Hasegawa (SH) test to compare our ML tree against three biogeographical hypotheses. Results A significant SH test supported diversification of A. contortrix from northeastern Mexico into midwestern-eastern North America, where its trajectory was sundered by two vicariant events. The first (c. 5.1 Ma) segregated clades at 3.1% sequence divergence (SD) along a continental east-west moisture gradient. The second (c. 1.4 Ma) segregated clades at 2.4% SD along the Mississippi River, coincident with the formation of the modern Ohio River as a major meltwater tributary. A single glacial refugium was detected within the Apalachicola region of southeastern North America. Significant support was also found for a hypothesis of trans-Gulf rafting by the common ancestor of A. piscivorus from eastern Mexico (possibly the Yucatan Peninsula) to northern Florida. There, a Mid-Late Pliocene marine transgression separated it at 4.8% SD from mainland North America. Significant range expansions followed compressive glacial effects in three (of four) A. contortrix clades and in two (of three) A. piscivorus clades, with the Florida A. piscivorus clade exhibiting significant distributional stasis. Main conclusions Pliocene glaciations, rapidly developing western aridity, and Pleistocene glacial meltwaters seemingly led to the diversification of A. contortrix and A. piscivorus in North America. Both species were pushed southwards by Pleistocene climate change, with subsequent northward expansions uninhibited topographically. The subspecific taxonomy used for A. contortrix and A. piscivorus today, however, appear non-representative. The monophyletic Florida subspecies of A. piscivorus may be a distinct species (at 4.8% SD), whereas two western subspecies of A. contortrix also appear to constitute a single distinct species, pending additional analyses. We conclude that both species of Agkistrodon can be used as suitable ectothermic models to gauge impacts of future climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1164-1180
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2009


  • INHS
  • Glaciation
  • Refugia
  • MtDNA
  • Quaternary
  • Phylogeography
  • Okefenokee Trough
  • North America
  • Pliocene
  • Subspecies
  • Pleistocene

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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