Discordant mitochondrial and nuclear gene phylogenies in emydid turtles: Implications for speciation and conservation

John J. Wiens, Caitlin A. Kuczynski, Patrick R. Stephens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

110 Scopus citations


Do phylogenies and branch lengths based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) provide a reasonable approximation to those based on multiple nuclear loci? In the present study, we show widespread discordance between phylogenies based on mtDNA (two genes) and nuclear DNA (nucDNA; six loci) in a phylogenetic analysis of the turtle family Emydidae. We also find an unusual type of discordance involving the unexpected homogeneity of mtDNA sequences across species within genera. Of the 36 clades in the combined nucDNA phylogeny, 24 are contradicted by the mtDNA phylogeny, and six are strongly contested by each data set. Two genera (Graptemys, Pseudemys) show remarkably low mtDNA divergence among species, whereas the combined nuclear data show deep divergences and (for Pseudemys) strongly supported clades. These latter results suggest that the mitochondrial data alone are highly misleading about the rate of speciation in these genera and also about the species status of endangered Graptemys and Pseudemys species. In addition, despite a strongly supported phylogeny from the combined nuclear genes, we find extensive discordance between this tree and individual nuclear gene trees. Overall, the results obtained illustrate the potential dangers of making inferences about phylogeny, speciation, divergence times, and conservation from mtDNA data alone (or even from single nuclear genes), and suggest the benefits of using large numbers of unlinked nuclear loci.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)445-461
Number of pages17
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2010


  • Branch lengths
  • Congruence
  • Reptiles
  • Systematics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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