Multiple late‐Pleistocene colonisation events of the Antarctic pearlwort Colobanthus quitensis (Caryophyllaceae) reveal the recent arrival of native Antarctic vascular flora

Elisabeth M. Biersma, Cristian Torres‐Díaz, Marco A. Molina‐Montenegro, Kevin. K. Newsham, Marcela A. Vidal, Gonzalo A. Collado, Ian S. Acuña‐Rodríguez, Gabriel I. Ballesteros, Christian C. Figueroa, William P. Goodall‐Copestake, Marcelo A. Leppe, Marely Cuba‐Díaz, Moisés A. Valladares, Luis R. Pertierra, Peter Convey

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Aim Antarctica's remote and extreme terrestrial environments are inhabited by only two species of native vascular plants. We assessed genetic connectivity amongst Antarctic and South American populations of one of these species, Colobanthus quitensis, to determine its origin and age in Antarctica. Location Maritime Antarctic, sub‐Antarctic islands, South America. Taxon Antarctic pearlwort Colobanthus quitensis (Caryophyllaceae). Methods Four chloroplast markers and one nuclear marker were sequenced from 270 samples from a latitudinal transect spanning 21–68° S. Phylogeographic, population genetic and molecular dating analyses were used to assess the demographic history of C. quitensis and the age of the species in Antarctica. Results Maritime Antarctic populations consisted of two different haplotype clusters, occupying the northern and southern Maritime Antarctic. Molecular dating analyses suggested C. quitensis to be a young (<1 Ma) species, with contemporary population structure derived since the late‐Pleistocene. Main conclusions. The Maritime Antarctic populations likely derived from two independent, late‐Pleistocene dispersal events. Both clusters shared haplotypes with sub‐Antarctic South Georgia, suggesting higher connectivity across the Southern Ocean than previously thought. The overall findings of multiple colonization events by a vascular plant species to Antarctica, and the recent timing of these events, are of significance with respect to future colonizations of the Antarctic Peninsula by vascular plants, particularly with predicted increases in ice‐free land in this area. This study fills a significant gap in our knowledge of the age of the contemporary Antarctic terrestrial biota. Adding to previous inferences on the other Antarctic vascular plant species (the grass Deschampsia antarctica), we suggest that both angiosperm species are likely to have arrived on a recent (late‐Pleistocene) time‐scale. While most major groups of Antarctic terrestrial biota include examples of much longer‐term Antarctic persistence, the vascular flora stands out as the first identified terrestrial group that appears to be of recent origin.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1663-1673
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number8
Early online date19 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2020


  • angiosperm
  • Antarctica
  • biogeography
  • dispersal
  • island
  • pearlwort
  • South America
  • Southern Ocean


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