Rivers, not refugia, drove diversification in arboreal, sub-Saharan African snakes

Kaitlin E. Allen, Eli Greenbaum, Paul M. Hime, Walter P. Tapondjou N., Viktoria V. Sterkhova, Chifundera Kusamba, Mark Oliver Rödel, Johannes Penner, A. Townsend Peterson, Rafe M. Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


The relative roles of rivers versus refugia in shaping the high levels of species diversity in tropical rainforests have been widely debated for decades. Only recently has it become possible to take an integrative approach to test predictions derived from these hypotheses using genomic sequencing and paleo-species distribution modeling. Herein, we tested the predictions of the classic river, refuge, and river-refuge hypotheses on diversification in the arboreal sub-Saharan African snake genus Toxicodryas. We used dated phylogeographic inferences, population clustering analyses, demographic model selection, and paleo-distribution modeling to conduct a phylogenomic and historical demographic analysis of this genus. Our results revealed significant population genetic structure within both Toxicodryas species, corresponding geographically to river barriers and divergence times from the mid-Miocene to Pliocene. Our demographic analyses supported the interpretation that rivers are indications of strong barriers to gene flow among populations since their divergence. Additionally, we found no support for a major contraction of suitable habitat during the last glacial maximum, allowing us to reject both the refuge and river-refuge hypotheses in favor of the river-barrier hypothesis. Based on conservative interpretations of our species delimitation analyses with the Sanger and ddRAD data sets, two new cryptic species are identified from east-central Africa. This study highlights the complexity of diversification dynamics in the African tropics and the advantages of integrative approaches to studying speciation in tropical regions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6133-6152
Number of pages20
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • Toxicodryas
  • historical demography
  • machine learning
  • paleo-distributions
  • phylogenomics


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