DNA analysis of salamanders turns up new species under almost every log, UC Berkeley zoologists find

, and botanists in plants, such as the tiny yellow goldfields that used to blanket the hills of California every spring.

"In case after case, when we look at evolution at shallower levels than we possibly could before, we are finding groups that have undergone extensive divergent evolution while remaining morphologically indistinguishable," said Baldwin. One of his graduate students is doing the work on goldfields.

The current PNAS paper deals with a particular genus of salamander, Lineatriton, that is unique among salamanders in how it has adapted to living in the soil of the forest floor. To facilitate burrowing, all other soil-dwelling salamanders became long and slender by developing more vertebrae in the neck and back, and by shrinking their legs. Rapid burrowing makes it easier to escape predators, Wake said, enabling salamanders to move into lowland habitat.

Lineatriton is the only salamander to become long and slender by taking a tip from the giraffe - it grew longer vertebrae. Only one species, Lineatriton lineolus, had been recognized in the genus, and it lives in the foothills of mountains inland of the Veracruz coast, between 2,000 and 4,000 feet.

When Parra-Olea collected identical salamanders from a known population in an isolated series of hills known as Los Tuxtlas farther down the coast, she naturally assumed they were of the same species.

Analysis of their mitochondrial DNA revealed, however, that they were two separate species that just happened to find the same solution - slim down and stretch out - to the problem of burrowing. Apparently, they evolved from similar ancestors with a more general salamander body plan characterized by a tail about the same length as the body.

"We were so surprised we did the DNA analysis again," Wake said. "These salamanders developed in parallel the same mechanism for burrowing in the soil, by lengthening their vertebrae - a strategy we thought had evolved only once i

Contact: Robert Sanders
University of California - Berkeley

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