During past glacial periods, many species of forest-dwelling animals experienced range contractions. In contrast, species living outside such moist habitats appear to have reacted to Quaternary changes in different ways. The Atlantic Forest represents an excellent opportunity to test phylogeographic hypotheses, because it has a wide range of vegetation types, including unforested habitats covered predominantly by herbaceous and shrubby plants, which are strongly influenced by the harsh environment with strong wind and high insolation. Here, we investigated the distribution of genetic diversity in the endemic sand dune ant Mycetophylax simplex across its known range along the Brazilian coast, with the aim of contributing to the understanding of alternative phylogeographic patterns. We used partial sequences of the mitochondrial gene cytochrome oxidase I and nuclear gene wingless from 108 specimens and 51 specimens, respectively, to assess the phylogeography and demographic history of this species. To achieve this we performed different methods of phylogenetic and standard population genetic analyses.
The observed genetic diversity distribution and historical demographic profile suggests that the history of M. simplex does not match the scenario suggested for other Atlantic Forest species. Instead, it underwent demographic changes and range expansions during glacial periods. Our results show that M. simplex presents a shallow phylogeographic structure with isolation by distance among the studied populations, living in an almost panmictic population. Our coalescence approach indicates that the species maintained a stable population size until roughly 75,000 years ago, when it underwent a gradual demographic expansion that were coincident with the low sea-level during the Quaternary. Such demographic events were likely triggered by the expansion of the shorelines during the lowering of the sea level.
Our data suggest that over evolutionary time M. simplex did not undergo dramatic range fragmentation, but rather it likely persisted in largely interconnected populations. Furthermore, we add an important framework about how both glacial and interglacial events could positively affect the distribution and diversification of species. The growing number of contrasting phylogeographic patterns within and among species and regions have shown that Quaternary events influenced the distribution of species in more ways than first supposed.