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Evolutionary lag times and recent origin of the biota of an ancient desert (Atacama-Sechura)

Pablo C. Guerrero, Marcelo Rosas, Mary T. K. Arroyo, John J. Wiens
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Journal Article
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The assembly of regional biotas and organismal responses to anthropogenic climate change both depend on the capacity of organisms to adapt to novel ecological conditions. Here we demonstrate the concept of evolutionary lag time, the time between when a climatic regime or habitat develops in a region and when it is colonized by a given clade. We analyzed the time of colonization of four clades (three plant genera and one lizard genus) into the Atacama-Sechura Desert of South America, one of Earth's driest and oldest deserts. We reconstructed time-calibrated phylogenies for each clade and analyzed the timing of shifts in climatic distributions and biogeography and compared these estimates to independent geological estimates of the time of origin of these deserts. Chaetanthera and Malesherbia (plants) and Liolaemus (animal) invaded arid regions of the Atacama-Sechura Desert in the last 10 million years, some 20 million years after the initial onset of aridity in the region. There are also major lag times between when these clades colonized the region and when they invaded arid habitats within the region (typically 4-14 million years). Similarly, hyperarid climates developed ∼8 million years ago, but the most diverse plant clade in these habitats (Nolana) only colonized them ∼2 million years ago. Similar evolutionary lag times may occur in other organisms and habitats, but these results are important in suggesting that many lineages may require very long time scales to adapt to modern desertification and climatic change.

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