To understand factors shaping species boundaries in closely related taxa, a powerful approach is to compare levels of genetic admixture at multiple points of contact and determine how this relates to intrinsic and extrinsic factors, such as genetic, morphological and ecological differentiation. In the Australian Alps, the threatened alpine bog skink Pseudemoia cryodroma co-occurs with two morphologically and ecologically similar congeners, P. entrecasteauxii and P. pagenstecheri, and all three species are suspected to hybridize. We predicted that the frequency of hybridization should be negatively correlated with genetic divergence, morphological differentiation and microhabitat separation. We tested this hypothesis using a mitochondrial locus, 13 microsatellite loci, morphological and microhabitat data and compared results across three geographically isolated sites. Despite strong genetic structure between species, we detected hybridization between all species pairs, including evidence of backcrossed individuals at the two sites where all three species are syntopic. Hybridization frequencies were not consistently associated with genetic, morphological or ecological differentiation. Furthermore, P. entrecasteauxii and P. pagenstecheri only hybridized at the two sites where they are syntopic with P. cryodroma, but not at the largest site where P. cryodroma was not recorded, suggesting that P. cryodroma may serve as a bridging species. This study reveals the complex dynamics within a three species hybrid zone and provides a baseline for assessing the impact of climate change and anthropogenic habitat modification on future hybridization frequencies.
- conservation genetics