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2.  Ancient DNA forces reconsideration of evolutionary history of Mediterranean pygmy elephantids 
Biology Letters  2006;2(3):451-454.
During the Pleistocene pygmy elephantids, some only a quarter of their ancestors' size, were present on Mediterranean islands until about 10 000 years ago (y.a.). Using a new methodology for ancient DNA (aDNA) studies, the whole genomic multiple displacement amplification method, we were able to retrieve cytochrome b (cytb) DNA fragments from 4200 to 800 000 y.a. specimens from island and mainland samples, including pygmy and normal-sized forms. The short DNA sequence (43 bp) retrieved from the 800 000 y.a. sample is one of the oldest DNA fragment ever retrieved. Duplication of the experiments in two laboratories, the occurrence of three diagnostic sites and the results of the phylogenetic analyses strongly support its authenticity. Our results challenge the prevailing view that pygmy elephantids of the eastern Mediterranean originated exclusively from Elephas, suggesting independent histories of dwarfism and the presence of both pygmy mammoths and elephant-like taxa on these islands. Based on our molecular data, the origin of the Tilos and Cyprus elephantids from a lineage within the genus Elephas is confirmed, while the DNA sequence from the Cretan sample falls clearly within the mammoth clade. Thus, the name Mammuthus creticus rather than Elephas creticus, seems to be justified for this form. Our findings also suggest a need to re-evaluate the evolutionary history of the Sicilian/Maltese species, traditionally included in the genus Elephas.
doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0467
PMCID: PMC1686204  PMID: 17148428
cytochrome b; elephantids; fossils; mammoths; mtDNA; taxonomy
3.  A rapid loss of stripes: the evolutionary history of the extinct quagga 
Biology Letters  2005;1(3):291-295.
Twenty years ago, the field of ancient DNA was launched with the publication of two short mitochondrial (mt) DNA sequences from a single quagga (Equus quagga) museum skin, an extinct South African equid (Higuchi et al. 1984 Nature 312, 282–284). This was the first extinct species from which genetic information was retrieved. The DNA sequences of the quagga showed that it was more closely related to zebras than to horses. However, quagga evolutionary history is far from clear. We have isolated DNA from eight quaggas and a plains zebra (subspecies or phenotype Equus burchelli burchelli). We show that the quagga displayed little genetic diversity and very recently diverged from the plains zebra, probably during the penultimate glacial maximum. This emphasizes the importance of Pleistocene climate changes for phylogeographic patterns in African as well as Holarctic fauna.
doi:10.1098/rsbl.2005.0323
PMCID: PMC1617154  PMID: 17148190
ancient DNA; phylogeography; Africa; vicariance; Pleistocene; refugia
4.  A cryptic taxon of Galápagos tortoise in conservation peril 
Biology Letters  2005;1(3):287-290.
As once boldly stated, ‘bad taxonomy can kill’, highlighting the critical importance of accurate taxonomy for the conservation of endangered taxa. The concept continues to evolve almost 15 years later largely because most legal protections aimed at preserving biological diversity are based on formal taxonomic designations. In this paper we report unrecognized genetic divisions within the giant tortoises of the Galápagos. We found three distinct lineages among populations formerly considered a single taxon on the most populous and accessible island of Santa Cruz; their diagnosability, degree of genetic divergence and phylogenetic placement merit the recognition of at least one new taxon. These results demonstrate the fundamental importance of continuing taxonomic investigations to recognize biological diversity and designate units of conservation, even within long-studied organisms such as Galápagos tortoises, whose evolutionary heritage and contribution to human intellectual history warrant them special attention.
doi:10.1098/rsbl.2005.0317
PMCID: PMC1617146  PMID: 17148189
Geochelone nigra (elephantopus); giant tortoises; microsatellites; conservation genetics; phylogeography; historical DNA

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