How did pygmy perch swim across the desert?

“Pygmy perch swam across the desert”

As regular readers of The G-CAT are likely aware, my first ever scientific paper was published this week. The paper is largely the results of my Honours research (with some extra analysis tacked on) on the phylogenomics (the same as phylogenetics, but with genomic data) and biogeographic history of a group of small, endemic freshwater fishes known as the pygmy perch. There are a number of different messages in the paper related to biogeography, taxonomy and conservation, and I am really quite proud of the work.

Southern_pygmy_perch 1 MHammer
A male southern pygmy perch, which usually measures 6-8 cm long.

To my honest surprise, the paper has received a decent amount of media attention following its release. Nearly all of these have focused on the biogeographic results and interpretations of the paper, which is arguably the largest component of the paper. In these media releases, the articles are often opened with “…despite the odds, new research has shown how a tiny fish managed to find its way across the arid Australian continent – more than once.” So how did they manage it? These are tiny fish, and there’s a very large desert area right in the middle of Australia, so how did they make it all the way across? And more than once?!

 The Great (southern) Southern Land

To understand the results, we first have to take a look at the context for the research question. There are seven officially named species of pygmy perches (‘named’ is an important characteristic here…but we’ll go into the details of that in another post), which are found in the temperate parts of Australia. Of these, three are found with southwest Western Australia, in Australia’s only globally recognised biodiversity hotspot, and the remaining four are found throughout eastern Australia (ranging from eastern South Australia to Tasmania and up to lower Queensland). These two regions are separated by arid desert regions, including the large expanse of the Nullarbor Plain.

The distributions of pygmy perch species across Australia. The dots and labels refer to different sampling sites used in the study. A: the distribution of western pygmy perches, and essentially the extent of the southwest WA biodiversity hotspot region. B: the distribution of eastern pygmy perches, excluding N. oxleyana which occurs in upper NSW/lower QLD (indicated in C). C: the distributions relative to the map of Australia. The black region in the middle indicates the Nullarbor Plain. 


The Nullarbor Plain is a remarkable place. It’s dead flat, has no trees, and most importantly for pygmy perches, it also has no standing water or rivers. The plain was formed from a large limestone block that was pushed up from beneath the Earth approximately 15 million years ago; with the progressive aridification of the continent, this region rapidly lost any standing water drainages that would have connected the east to the west. The remains of water systems from before (dubbed ‘paleodrainages’) can be seen below the surface.

Nullarbor Plain photo
See? Nothing here. Photo taken near Watson, South Australia. Credit: Benjamin Rimmer.

Biogeography of southern Australia

As one might expect, the formation of the Nullarbor Plain was a huge barrier for many species, especially those that depend on regular accessible water for survival. In many species of both plants and animals, we see in their phylogenetic history a clear separation of eastern and western groups around this time; once widely distributed species become fragmented by the plain and diverged from one another. We would most certainly expect this to be true of pygmy perch.

But our questions focus on what happened before the Nullarbor Plain arrived in the picture. More than 15 million years ago, southern Australia was a massively different place. The climate was much colder and wetter, even in central Australia, and we even have records of tropical rainforest habitats spreading all the way down to Victoria. Water-dependent animals would have been able to cross the southern part of the continent relatively freely.

Biogeography of the enigmatic pygmy perches

This is where the real difference between everything else and pygmy perch happens. For most species, we see only one east and west split in their phylogenetic tree, associated with the Nullarbor Plain; before that, their ancestors were likely distributed across the entire southern continent and were one continuous unit.

Not for pygmy perch, though. Our phylogenetic patterns show that there were multiple splits between eastern and western ancestral pygmy perch. We can see this visually within the phylogenetic tree; some western species of pygmy perches are more closely related, from an evolutionary perspective, to eastern species of pygmy perches than they are to other western species. This could imply a couple different things; either some species came about by migration from east to west (or vice versa), and that this happened at least twice, or that two different ancestral pygmy perches were distributed across all of southern Australia and each split east-west at some point in time. These two hypotheses are called “multiple invasion” and “geographic paralogy”, respectively.

The phylogeny of pygmy perches produced by this study, containing 45 different individuals across all species of pygmy perch. Species are labelled in the tree in brackets, and their geographic location (east or west) is denoted by the colour on the right. This tree clearly shows more than one E/W separation, as not all eastern species are within the same clade. For example, despite being an eastern species, N. variegata is more closely related to Nth. balstoni or N. vittata than to the other eastern species (N. australisN. obscuraN. oxleyana and N. ‘flindersi’.

So, which is it? We delved deeper into this using a type of analysis called ‘ancestral clade reconstruction’. This tries to guess the likely distributions of species ancestors using different models and statistical analysis. Our results found that the earliest east-west split was due to the fragmentation of a widespread ancestor ~20 million years ago, and a migration event facilitated by changing waterways from the Nullarbor Plain pushing some eastern pygmy perches to the west to form the second group of western species. We argue for more than one migration across Australia since the initial ancestor of pygmy perches must have expanded from some point (either east or west) to encompass the entirety of southern Australia.

The ancestral area reconstruction of pygmy perches, estimated using the R package BioGeoBEARS. The different pie charts denote the relative probability of the possible distributions for the species or ancestor at that particular time; colours denote exactly where the distribution is (following the legend). As you can see, the oldest E/W split at 21 million years ago likely resulted from a single widespread ancestor, with it’s range split into an east and west group. The second E/W event, at 15 million years ago, most likely reflects a migration from east to west, resulting in the formation of the N. vittata species group. This coincides with the Nullarbor Plain, so it’s likely that changes in waterway patterns allowed some eastern pygmy perch to move westward as the area became more arid.

So why do we see this for pygmy perch and no other species? Well, that’s the real mystery; out of all of the aquatic species found in southeast and southwest Australia, pygmy perch are one of the worst at migrating. They’re very picky about habitat, small, and don’t often migrate far unless pushed (by, say, a flood). It is possible that unrecorded extinct species of pygmy perch might help to clarify this a little, but the chances of finding a preserved fish fossil (let alone for a fish less than 8cm in size!) is extremely unlikely. We can really only theorise about how they managed to migrate.

Pygmy perch biogeo history
A diagram of the distribution of pygmy perch species over time, as suggested by the ancestral area reconstruction. A: the initial ancestor of pygmy perches was likely found throughout southern Australia. B: an unknown event splits the ancestor into an eastern and western group; the sole extant species of the W group is Nth. balstoniC: the ancestor of the eastern pygmy perches spreads towards the west, entering part of the pre-Nullarbor region. D: due to changes in the hydrology of the area, some eastern pygmy perches (the maroon colour in C) are pushed towards the west; these form N. vittata species and N. pygmaea. The Nullarbor Plain forms and effectively cuts off the two groups from one another, isolating them.

What does this mean for pygmy perches?

Nearly all species of pygmy perch are threatened or worse in the conservation legislation; there have been many conservation efforts to try and save the worst-off species from extinction. Pygmy perches provide a unique insight to the history of the Australian climate and may be a key in unlocking some of the mysteries of what our land was like so long ago. Every species is important for conservation and even those small, hard-to-notice creatures that we might forget about play a role in our environmental history.

The history of histories: philosophy in biogeography

Biogeography of the globe

The distribution of organisms across the Earth, both over time and across space, is a fundamental aspect of the field of biogeography. But our understanding of the mechanisms by which organisms are distributed across the globe, and how this affects their evolution, can be at times highly enigmatic. Why are Australia and the Americas the only two places that have marsupials? How did lemurs get all the way to Madagascar, and why are they the only primate that has made the trip? How did Darwin’s famous finches get over to the Galápagos, and why are there so many species of them there now?

All of these questions can be addressed with a combination of genetic, environmental and ecological information across a variety of timescales. However, the overall field of biogeography (and phylogeography as a derivative of it) has traditionally been largely rooted on a strong yet changing theoretical basis. The earliest discussions and discoveries related to biogeography as a field of science date back to the 18th Century, and to Carl Linnaeus (to whom we owe our binomial classification system) and Alexander von Humboldt. These scientists (and undoubtedly many others of that era) were among the first to notice how organisms in similar climates (e.g. Australia, South Africa and South America) showed similar physical characteristics despite being so distantly separated (both in their groups and geographic distance). The communities of these regions also appeared to be highly similar. So how could this be possible over such huge distances?

Arctic and fennec final
A pretty unreasonable mechanism (and example) of dispersal in foxes. And yes, all tourists wear sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts, even arctic fox ones.


Dispersal or vicariance?

Two main explanations for these patterns are possible; dispersal and vicariance. As one might expect, dispersal denotes that an ancestral species was distributed in one of these places (referred to as the ‘centre of origin’) before it migrated and inhabited the other places. Contrastingly, vicariance suggests that the ancestral species was distributed everywhere originally, covering all contemporary ranges within it. However, changes in geography, climate or the formation of other barriers caused the range of the ancestor to fragment, with each fragmented group evolving into its own distinct species (or group of species).

Dispersal vs vicariance islands
An example of dispersal vs. vicariance patterns of biogeography in an island bird (pale blue). In the top example, the sequential separation of parts of the island also cause parts of the distribution of the original bird species to become fragmented. These fragments each evolve independently of their ancestor and form new species (red, and then blue). In the bottom example, the island geography doesn’t change but in rare events a bird disperses from the main island onto a new island. The new selective pressures of that island cause the dispersed birds to evolve into new species (red and blue). In both examples, islands that were recently connected or are easy to disperse across do not generate new species (in the sandy island in the bottom right). You’ll notice that both processes result in the same biogeographic distribution of species.

In initial biogeographic science, dispersal was the most heavily favoured explanation. At the time, there was no clear mechanism by which organisms could be present all over the globe without some form of dispersal: it was generally believed that the world was a static, unmoving system. Dispersal was well supported by some biological evidence such as the diversification of Darwin’s finches across the Galápagos archipelago. Thus, this concept was supported through the proposals of a number of prominent scientists such as Charles Darwin and A.R. Wallace. For others, however, the distance required for dispersal (such as across entire oceans) seemed implausible and biologically unrealistic.


A paradigm shift in biogeography

Two particular developments in theory are credited with a paradigm shift in the field; cladistics and plate tectonics. Cladistics simply involved using shared biological characteristics to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of species (think like phylogenetics, but using physical traits instead of genetic sequence). Just as importantly, however, was plate tectonic theory, which provided a clear way for organisms to spread across the planet. By understanding that, deep in the past, all continents had been directly connected to one another provides a convenient explanation for how species groups spread. Instead of requiring for species to travel across entire oceans, continental drift meant that one widespread and ancient ancestor on the historic supercontinent (Pangaea; or subsequently Gondwana and Laurasia) could become fragmented. It only required that groups were very old, but not necessarily very dispersive.

Lemur dispersal
Surf’s up, dudes! Although continental drift was no doubt an important factor in the distribution and dispersal of many organisms on Earth, it actually probably wasn’t the reason lemurs got to Madagascar. Sorry for the mislead.

From these advances in theory, cladistic vicariance biogeography was born. The field rapidly overtook dispersal as the most likely explanation for biogeographic patterns across the globe by not only providing a clear mechanism to explain these but also an analytical framework to test questions relating to these patterns. Further developments into the analytical backbone of cladistic vicariance allowed for more nuanced questions of biogeography to be asked, although still fundamentally ignored the role of potential dispersals in explaining species’ distributions.

Modern philosophy of biogeography

So, what is the current state of the field? Well, the more we research biogeographic patterns with better data (such as with genomics) the more we realise just how complicated the history of life on Earth can be. Complex modelling (such as Bayesian methods) allow us to more explicitly test the impact of Earth history events on our study species, and can provide more detailed overview of the evolutionary history of the species (such as by directly estimating times of divergence, amount of dispersal, extent of range shifts).

From a theoretical perspective, the consistency of patterns of groups is always in question and exactly what determines what species occurs where is still somewhat debatable. However, the greater number of types of data we can now include (such as geological, paleontological, climatic, hydrological, genetic…the list goes on!) allows us to paint a better picture of life on Earth. By combining information about what we know happened on Earth, with what we know has happened to species, we can start to make links between Earth history and species history to better understand how (or if) these events have shaped evolution.

Evolution and the space-time continuum

Evolution travelling in time

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, evolution is a constant force that changes and flows over time. While sometimes it’s more convenient to think of evolution as a series of rather discrete events (a species pops up here, a population separates here, etc.), it’s really a more continual process. The context and strength of evolutionary forces, such as natural selection, changes as species and the environment they inhabit also changes. This is important to remember in evolutionary studies because although we might think of more recent and immediate causes of the evolutionary changes we see, they might actually reflect much more historic patterns. For example, extremely low contemporary levels of genetic diversity in cheetah is likely largely due to a severe reduction in their numbers during the last ice age, ~12 thousand years ago (that’s not to say that modern human issues haven’t also been seriously detrimental to them). Similarly, we can see how the low genetic diversity of a small population colonise a new area can have long term effects on their genetic variation: this is called ‘founder effect’. Because of this, we often have to consider the temporal aspect of a species’ evolution.

Founder effect diagram
An example of founder effect. Each circle represents a single organism; the different colours are an indicator of how much genetic diversity that individual possesses (more colours = more variation). We start with a single population; one (A) or two (B) individuals go on a vacation and decide to stay on a new island. Even after the population has become established and grows over time, it takes a long time for new diversity to arise. This is because of the small original population size and genetic diversity; this is called founder effect. The more genetic diversity in the settled population (e.g. vs A), the faster new diversity arises and the weaker the founder effect.

Evolution travelling across space

If the environmental context of species and populations are also important for determining the evolutionary pathways of organisms, then we must also consider the spatial context. Because of this, we also need to look at where evolution is happening in the world; what kinds of geographic, climatic, hydrological or geological patterns are shaping and influencing the evolution of species? These patterns can influence both neutral or adaptive processes by shaping exactly how populations or species exist in nature; how connected they are, how many populations they can sustain, how large those populations can sustainably become, and what kinds of selective pressures those populations are under.

Allopatry diagram
An example of how the environment (in this case, geology) can have both neutral and adaptive effects. Let’s say we start with one big population of cats (N = 9; A), which is distributed over a single large area (the green box). However, a sudden geological event causes a mountain range to uplift, splitting the population in two (B). Because of the reduced population size and the (likely) randomness of which individuals are on each side, we expect some impact of genetic drift. Thus, this is the neutral influence. Over time, these two separated regions might change climatically (C), with one becoming much more arid and dry (right) and the other more wet and shady (left). Because of the difference of the selective environment, the two populations might adapt differently. This is the adaptive influence. 

Evolution along the space-time continuum

Given that the environment also changes over time (and can be very rapid, and we’ve seen recently), the interaction of the spatial and temporal aspects of evolution are critical in understanding the true evolutionary history of species. As we know, the selective environment is what determines what is, and isn’t, adaptive (or maladaptive), so we can easily imagine how a change in the environment could push changes in species. Even from a neutral perspective, geography is important to consider since it can directly determine which populations are or aren’t connected, how many populations there are in total or how big populations can sustainably get. It’s always important to consider how evolution travels along the space-time continuum.

Genetics TARDIS
“Postgraduate Student Who” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, unfortunately.


The field of evolutionary science most concerned with these two factors and how the influence evolution is known as ‘phylogeography’, which I’ve briefly mentioned in previous posts. In essence, phylogeographers are interested in how the general environment (e.g. geology, hydrology, climate, etc) have influenced the distribution of genealogical lineages. That’s a bit of a mouthful and seems a bit complicated, by the genealogical part is important; phylogeography has a keen basis in evolutionary genetics theory and analysis, and explicitly uses genetic data to test patterns of historic evolution. Simply testing the association between broad species or populations, without the genetic background, and their environment, falls under the umbrella field of ‘biogeography’. Semantics, but important.

Birds phylogeo
Some example phylogeographic models created by Zamudio et al. (2016). For each model, there’s a demonstrated relationship between genealogical lineages (left) and the geographic patterns (right), with the colours of the birds indicating some trait (let’s pretend they’re actually super colourful, as birds are). As you can see, depending on which model you look at, you will see a different evolutionary pattern; for example, model shows specific lineages that are geographically isolated from one another each evolved their own colour. This contrasts with in that each colour appears to have evolved once in each region based on the genetic history.

For phylogeography, the genetic history of populations or species gives the more accurate overview of their history; it allows us to test when populations or species became separated, which were most closely related, and whether patterns are similar or different across other taxonomic groups. Predominantly, phylogeography is based on neutral genetic variation, as using adaptive variation can confound the patterns we are testing. Additionally, since neutral variation changes over time in a generally predictable, mathematical format (see this post to see what I mean), we can make testable models of various phylogeographic patterns and see how well our genetic data makes sense under each model. For example, we could make a couple different models of how many historic populations there were and see which one makes the most sense for our data (with a statistical basis, of course). This wouldn’t work with genes under selection since they (by their nature) wouldn’t fit a standard ‘neutral’ model.

If it looks mathematically complicated, it’s because it is. This is an example of the coalescent from Brito & Edwards, 2008: a method that maps genes back in time (the different lines) to see where the different variants meet at a common ancestor. These genes are nested within the history of the species as a whole (the ‘tubes’), with many different variables accounted for in the model.

That said, there are plenty of interesting scientific questions within phylogeography that look at exploring the adaptive variation of historic populations or species and how this has influenced their evolution. Although this can’t inherently be built into the same models as the neutral patterns, looking at candidate genes that we think are important for evolution and seeing how their distributions and patterns relate to the overall phylogeographic history of the species is one way of investigating historic adaptive evolution. For example, we might track changes in adaptive genes by seeing which populations have which variants of the gene and referring to our phylogeographic history to see how and when these variants arose. This can help us understand how phylogeographic patterns have influenced the adaptive evolution of different populations or species, or inversely, how adaptive traits might have influenced the geographic distribution of species or populations.

Where did you come from and where will you go?

Phylogeographic studies can tell us a lot about the history of a species, and particularly how that relates to the history of the Earth. All organisms share an intimate relationship with their environment, both over time and space, and keeping this in mind is key for understanding the true evolutionary history of life on Earth.