Differential tolerance among cryptic species: a potential cause of pollutant-related reductions in genetic diversity

Axayácatl Rocha-Olivares, Department of Biological Sciences, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803, USA. arocha@cicese.mx
John W. Fleeger
David W. Foltz


Differential mortality of cryptic species (i.e., morphologically similar but genetically distinct sibling species) may contribute to observed reductions in genetic diversity at contaminated sites if the members of a complex of cryptic species exhibit differential responses to the contaminants that are present. We conducted toxicity bioassays with both polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon and metal contamination on Cletocamptus fourchensis and C. stimpsoni from two intensively sampled locations. Previous molecular and detailed morphological analyses segregated these as cryptic species from the cosmopolitan C. deitersi. We found that these species occur together at two field sites and that they exhibit unique toxic responses to heavy metals, suggesting differential tolerances at contaminated sites. These findings suggest that reported losses of genetic diversity at contaminated sites may represent a reduction in species diversity rather than a loss of the presumed less-tolerant genotypes within a species. They also suggest that members of a cryptic species complex should not be used in laboratory toxicity tests unless populations are genetically characterized. Future studies using genetic diversity as a marker of contaminant effects should consider the possibility of undetected cryptic species.