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An extant cichlid fish radiation emerged in an extinct Pleistocene lake


The haplochromine cichlid fish of the East African Great Lakes represent some of the fastest and most species-rich adaptive radiations known1, but rivers in most of Africa accommodate only a few morphologically similar species of haplochromine cichlid fish. This has been explained by the wealth of ecological opportunity in large lakes compared with rivers. It is therefore surprising that the rivers of southern Africa harbour many, ecologically diverse haplochromines. Here we present genetic, morphological and biogeographical evidence suggesting that these riverine cichlids are products of a recent adaptive radiation in a large lake that dried up in the Holocene. Haplochromine species richness peaks steeply in an area for which geological data reveal the historical existence of Lake palaeo-Makgadikgadi2,3. The centre of this extinct lake is now a saltpan north of the Kalahari Desert, but it once hosted a rapidly evolving fish species radiation, comparable in morphological diversity to that in the extant African Great Lakes. Importantly, this lake seeded all major river systems of southern Africa with ecologically diverse cichlids. This discovery reveals how local evolutionary processes operating during a short window of ecological opportunity can have a major and lasting effect on biodiversity on a continental scale.

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Figure 1: The serranochromine cichlids of southern Africa are a flock of closely related species that probably arose in Lake paleo-Makgadikgadi.
Figure 2: Geographic distribution of species richness in southern African fish groups.
Figure 3: The area in morphospace occupied by the cichlid radiations.

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We acknowledge the financial support of the Leverhulme Trust for this project, and that of the Natural Environmental Research Council for Hull's Genome Analysis Suite. The Africa Museum of Belgium and the OEAD of Austria supported C.K.'s fieldwork in Zambia. N.D. received a DOC-FFORTE (women in research and technology) fellowship from the Austrian Academy of Sciences and was further financially supported by the University of Graz. C.S. was supported by the Austrian Science foundation. We also thank A. Smith, P. Skelton, D. Tweddle and W. Salzburger for fin clips, H. J. Mrosso for morphometric measurements of three Lake Victoria cichlid species, A. Konings for Serranochromis robustus in Fig. 1d, and K. Young and U. Schliewen for comments and discussion.

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Correspondence to Ole Seehausen.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Additional information

The alignment and DNA sequences presented in this paper are available at GenBank (accession numbers AY913844AY913942).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Table S1

Species sampled, locations and accession numbers. (PDF 71 kb)

Supplementary Figure S1

Some of the cichlids of the southern radiation, showing the high morphological diversity despite low mitchondrial DNA variation. (PDF 1762 kb)

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Joyce, D., Lunt, D., Bills, R. et al. An extant cichlid fish radiation emerged in an extinct Pleistocene lake. Nature 435, 90–95 (2005).

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