Evolving thermal thresholds explain the distribution of temperature sex reversal in an Australian dragon lizard

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Aim: Species with temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) are particularly vulnerable to climate change because a resultant skew in population sex ratio can have severe demographic consequences and increase vulnerability to local extinction. The Australian central bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) has a thermosensitive ZZ male/ZW female system of genetic sex determination (GSD). High incubation temperatures cause reversal of the ZZ genotype to a viable female phenotype. Nest temperatures in the wild are predicted to vary on a scale likely to produce heterogeneity in the occurrence of sex reversal, and so we predict that sex reversal will correlate positively with inferred incubation conditions. Location: Mainland Australia. Methods: Wild-caught specimens of P. vitticeps vouchered in museum collections and collected during targeted field trips were genotypically and phenotypically sexed to determine the distribution of sex reversal across the species range. To determine whether environmental conditions or genetic structure can explain this distribution, we infer the incubation conditions experienced by each individual and apply a multi-model inference approach to determine which conditions associate with sex reversal. Further, we conduct reduced representation sequencing on a subset of specimens to characterize the population structure of this broadly distributed species. Results: Here we show that sex reversal in this widespread Australian dragon lizard is spatially restricted to the eastern part of the species range. Neither climatic variables during the inferred incubation period nor geographic population genetic structure explain this disjunct distribution of sex reversal. The main source of genetic variation arose from isolation by distance across the species range. Main conclusions: We propose that local genetic adaptation in the temperature threshold for sex reversal can counteract the sex-reversing influence of high incubation temperatures in P. vitticeps. Our study demonstrates that complex evolutionary processes need to be incorporated into modelling biological responses to future climate scenarios.




Castelli, M. A., Georges, A., Cherryh, C., Rosauer, D. F., Sarre, S. D., Contador-Kelsall, I., & Holleley, C. E. (2021). Evolving thermal thresholds explain the distribution of temperature sex reversal in an Australian dragon lizard. Diversity and Distributions, 27(3), 427–438. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13203

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