Comparative analysis of spatial genetic structure in an ant-plant symbiosis reveals a tension zone and highlights speciation processes in tropical Africa

Rumsaïs Blatrix*, Jean Peccoud, Céline Born, Finn Piatscheck, Laure Benoit, Mathieu Sauve, Champlain Djiéto-Lordon, Christiane Atteke, Jan J. Wieringa, David J. Harris, Doyle Mckey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Aim: Pleistocene climatic oscillations induced range fluctuations in African rain forest organisms and may have shaped species diversification through allopatric speciation events. We compared the spatial genetic structure of two forest species that live in obligate symbiosis and thus must have experienced the same range fluctuations, as a means to discriminate incipient speciation from transient differentiation simply resulting from past divergence. Location: Western central Africa. Methods: We genotyped 765 individuals of the tree Barteria fistulosa and 605 colonies of its symbiotic ant Tetraponera aethiops at 12 and 13 microsatellite loci, respectively. We compared the spatial genetic structure of the two symbionts by using Bayesian clustering algorithms, isolation-by-distance analyses and clines of synthetic alleles. We used species niche modelling (climatic and soil variables) to investigate ecological variables associated with genetic discontinuities in tree populations. Results: The trees and the ants showed congruent patterns of spatial genetic structure. However, the trees showed a very steep genetic discontinuity between groups north and south of latitude 1° N, which was much weaker in the ants. There was no evidence for effective gene flow between the two tree lineages in contact at the transition zone, despite the presence of a few hybrids. Niche modelling did not predict the occurrence of northern trees south of this genetic transition, and vice versa. Main conclusions: The genetic discontinuity near latitude 1° N is inferred to be a tension zone resulting from reproductive incompatibilities between previously allopatric tree lineages. This tension zone may have stabilized at a climatic transition (between boreal and austral seasonal regimes), and matches patterns of genetic structure previously observed in other forest plant species. Our results illustrate independent speciation between two species that live in specific and obligate symbiosis and suggest that a tension zone may separate lineages of several central African forest plants near the thermal equator.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1856-1868
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Africa
  • Barteria
  • Climatic oscillations
  • Guinea-Congolian rainforest
  • Incipient speciation
  • Phylogeography
  • Pleistocene
  • Symbiosis
  • Tension zone
  • Tetraponera

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