Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 101(38) , 13820-5 (Sep 21 2004)
The evolutionary history of the largest salamander family (Plethodontidae) is characterized by extreme morphological homoplasy. Analysis of the mechanisms generating such homoplasy requires an independent molecular phylogeny. To this end, we sequenced 24 complete mitochondrial genomes (22 plethodontids and two outgroup taxa), added data for three species from GenBank, and performed partitioned and unpartitioned Bayesian, maximum likelihood, and maximum parsimony phylogenetic analyses. We explored four dataset partitioning strategies to account for evolutionary process heterogeneity among genes and codon positions, all of which yielded increased model likelihoods and decreased numbers of supported nodes in the topologies (Bayesian posterior probability >0.95) relative to the unpartitioned analysis. Our phylogenetic analyses yielded congruent trees that contrast with the traditional morphology-based taxonomy; the monophyly of three of four major groups is rejected. Reanalysis of current hypotheses in light of these evolutionary relationships suggests that (i) a larval life history stage reevolved from a direct-developing ancestor multiple times; (ii) there is no phylogenetic support for the “Out of Appalachia” hypothesis of plethodontid origins; and (iii) novel scenarios must be reconstructed for the convergent evolution of projectile tongues, reduction in toe number, and specialization for defensive tail loss. Some of these scenarios imply morphological transformation series that proceed in the opposite direction than was previously thought. In addition, they suggest surprising evolutionary lability in traits previously interpreted to be conservative.