The páramo ecosystem, located above the timberline in the tropical Andes, has been the setting for some of the most dramatic plant radiations, and it is one of the world’s fastest evolving and most diverse high-altitude ecosystems. Today 144+ species of frailejones (subtribe Espeletiinae Cuatrec., Asteraceae) dominate the páramo. Frailejones have intrigued naturalists and botanists, not just for their appealing beauty and impressive morphological diversity, but also for their remarkable adaptations to the extremely harsh environmental conditions of the páramo. Previous attempts to reconstruct the evolutionary history of this group failed to resolve relationships among genera and species, and there is no agreement regarding the classification of the group. Thus, our goal was to reconstruct the phylogeny of the frailejones and to test the influence of the geography on it as a first step to understanding the patterns of radiation of these plants.
Field expeditions in 70 páramos of Colombia and Venezuela resulted in 555 collected samples from 110 species. Additional material was obtained from herbarium specimens. Sequence data included nrDNA (ITS and ETS) and cpDNA (rpl16), for an aligned total of 2,954 bp. Fragment analysis was performed with AFLP data using 28 primer combinations and yielding 1,665 fragments. Phylogeniesmore »
Phylogenies reconstructed suggest that most genera are paraphyletic, but the phylogenetic signal may be misled by hybridization and incomplete lineage sorting. A tree with all the available molecular data shows two large clades: one of primarily Venezuelan species that includes a few neighboring Colombian species; and a second clade of only Colombian species. Results from the Monte Carlo permutation test suggests a very strong influence of the geography on the phylogenetic relationships. Venezuelan páramos tend to hold taxa that are more distantly-related to each other than Colombian páramos, where taxa are more closely-related to each other.
Our data suggest the presence of two independent radiations: one in Venezuela and the other in Colombia. In addition, the current generic classification will need to be deeply revised. Analyses show a strong geographic structure in the phylogeny, with large clades grouped in hotspots of diversity at a regional scale, and in páramo localities at a local scale. Differences in the degrees of relatedness between sympatric species of Venezuelan and Colombian páramos may be explained because of the younger age of the latter páramos, and the lesser time for speciation of Espeletiinae in them.