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The genetic diversity and conservation biology of the rare terrestrial snail genus Prestonella

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  • Invertebrates
  • Qk Botany
  • Physics


Prestonella bowkeri and Prestonella nuptialis are montane specialists endemic to the southern Great Escarpment of South Africa. Phylogeographic analyses of these species based on mitochondrial markers CO1 and 16S reveal extremely high levels of divergence between populations indicating a lack of gene flow between populations. This is not surprising, because P. nuptialis and P. bowkeri have limited dispersal capacity, low vagility, a highly fragmented distribution and are habitat specialists that are restricted to isolated mesic refugia associated with waterfalls and montane seepages. A relaxed Bayesian clock estimate suggests that populations diverged from one another during the mid-late Miocene (12.5-7 MYA) which coincides with the modern trends of seasonal aridity which began during the Miocene. This result should be viewed with caution because the rates used are at best imprecise estimates of mutation rates in snails. There is no clear dichotomy between the two species and P. bowkeri is paraphyletic with respect to P. nuptialis, as a consequence the taxonomy is unclear. Due to the high levels of sequence divergence between populations they may be considered as evolutionary significant units (ESU’s). An assessment of haplotype diversity (h) and nucleotide diversity (π) reveals that populations in the western part of the Great Escarpment are more genetically depauperate than populations in the east. Correlations between genetic diversity and climatic variables show that genetically depauperate populations are found in areas that have lower annual rainfall, less reliable rainfall and higher potential evaporation, all factors associated with a drier, less mesic environment that increases the chances of a population bottleneck. This indicates that a shift towards a more arid environment may be a driver of genetic erosion. Historical climate change may thus have affected the amount and distribution of genetic diversity across the Great Escarpment since the Miocene. This has serious future implications for the survival of Prestonella. With predicted increase in global temperatures, climate change in South Africa is likely to result in range contraction and an eastward range shift for many species in the drier central and western areas (Erasmus et al. 2002) and regions along the Great Escarpment are likely to become more arid. Prestonella populations found living on inselbergs along the Great Escarpment are already restricted to site specific watercourses and seepages. An increase in the periods between stream flow, and increasing rainfall variability and mean annual potential evaporation are likely to have an adverse affect on species living in these habitats, resulting in further bottlenecks and possibly local extinction. An IUCN assessment of P. nuptialis and P. bowkeri suggests that these two species are probably endangered. The issue surrounding the conservation of Prestonella species is that they are threatened by global climate change, which cannot be simply restricted or prevented, which makes dealing with the threat of climate change difficult. Assisted migration (MA) may be considered as a method to prevent possible future extinctions of Prestonella populations, but will only be considered as a last resort. The thermal tolerance (Arrhenius breaking temperature and flat-line temperature) of individual snails from three Prestonella populations (one forest population and two thicket populations) were assessed using infrared sensors that detected changes in heart rate with increasing temperature. The forest population had a significantly lower Arrhenius breaking temperature (ABT) and flat-line temperature (FLT) than the two thicket population (p<0.05). Our results do not show a correlation between upper thermal limits and maximum habitat temperatures or other climatic variables in Prestonella populations. Although no correlation is found between ABT and maximum habitat temperature, it is likely that the differences seen between these populations are due to local micro-climate adaptation. The climatic variables used in this experiment are coarse estimates from GIS data and do not reflect actual microhabitat conditions. Forest environments are less heat stressed than thicket environments due to the forest canopy which may explain the lower ABT and FLT of the forest population.

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