The power and perils of ‘molecular taxonomy’: a case study of eyeless and endangered Cicurina (Araneae: Dictynidae) from Texas caves


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Molecular Ecology

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Rapid development in karst-rich regions of the US state of Texas has prompted the listing of four Cicurina species (Araneae, Dictynidae) as US Federally Endangered. A major constraint in the management of these taxa is the extreme rarity of adult specimens, which are required for accurate species identification. We report a first attempt at using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences to accurately identify immature Cicurina specimens. This identification is founded on a phylogenetic framework that is anchored by identified adult and/or topotypic specimens. Analysis of ~1 kb of cytochrome oxidase subunit I (CO1) mtDNA data for over 100 samples results in a phylogenetic tree that includes a large number of distinctive, easily recognizable, tip clades. These tip clades almost always correspond to a priori species hypotheses, and show nonoverlapping patterns of sequence divergence, making it possible to place species names on a number of immature specimens. Three cases of inconsistency between recovered tip clades and a priori species hypotheses suggest possible introgression between cave-dwelling Cicurina, or alternatively, species synonymy. Although species determination is not possible in these instances, the inconsistencies point to areas of taxonomic ambiguity that require further study. Our molecular phylogenetic sample is largest for the Federally Endangered C. madla. These data suggest that C. madla occurs in more than twice the number of caves as previously reported, and indicate the possible synonymy of C. madla with C. vespera, which is also Federally Endangered. Network analyses reveal considerable genetic divergence and structuring across caves in this species. Although the use of DNA sequences to identify previously ‘unidentifiable’ specimens illustrates the potential power of molecular data in taxonomy, many other aspects of the same dataset speak to the necessity of a balanced taxonomic approach.

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