Between a rock and a dry place: phylogenomics, biogeography, and systematics of ridge-tailed monitors (Squamata: Varanidae: Varanus acanthurus complex)

Carlos J. Pavón-Vázquez, Damien Esquerré, Alison J. Fitch, Brad Maryan, Paul Doughty, Stephen Donnellan, J. Scott Keogh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Genomic data are a powerful tool for the elucidation of evolutionary patterns at the population level and above. The combined analysis of genomic and morphological data can result in species delimitation hypotheses that reflect evolutionary history better than traditional taxonomy or any individual source of evidence. Here, we used thousands of single nucleotide polymorphisms, mitochondrial sequences, and comprehensive morphological data to characterize the evolutionary history of the ridge-tailed monitors in the Varanus acanthurus complex (V. acanthurus, V. baritji, and V. storri), a group of saxicolous lizards with a wide distribution in Australia, the driest vegetated continent. We found substantial genetic structure in the group and identify nine geographically clustered populations. Based on admixture patterns and species delimitation analyses we propose a taxonomic scheme that differs from current taxonomy. We consider V. acanthurus as monotypic, synonymize V. baritji with V. a. insulanicus (as a redefined V. insulanicus), elevate the subspecies of V. storri to full species (V. storri and V. ocreatus), and describe a new species from a previously identified center of endemism. The relationships among the species remain unresolved, likely as a result of fast speciation. Our study highlights the capability of large datasets to illuminate admixture patterns, biogeographic history, and species limits, even when phylogeny is not completely resolved. Furthermore, our results highlight the impact that the Cenozoic aridification of Australia had on saxicolous taxa and the role of mesic rocky escarpments as refugia. These habitats apparently allowed the persistence of lineages that became sources of colonization for arid environments.
Original languageEnglish
Article number107516
Number of pages19
JournalMolecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022


  • Aridification
  • Australia
  • Morphometrics
  • Phylogeography
  • Refugia
  • Species delimitation


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