Evolutionary innovations in Antarctic brittle stars linked to glacial refugia

Sally C.Y. Lau, Jan M. Strugnell, Chester J. Sands, Catarina N.S. Silva, Nerida G. Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


The drivers behind evolutionary innovations such as contrasting life histories and morphological change are central questions of evolutionary biology. However, the environmental and ecological contexts linked to evolutionary innovations are generally unclear. During the Pleistocene glacial cycles, grounded ice sheets expanded across the Southern Ocean continental shelf. Limited ice-free areas remained, and fauna were isolated from other refugial populations. Survival in Southern Ocean refugia could present opportunities for ecological adaptation and evolutionary innovation. Here, we reconstructed the phylogeographic patterns of circum-Antarctic brittle stars Ophionotus victoriae and O. hexactis with contrasting life histories (broadcasting vs brooding) and morphology (5 vs 6 arms). We examined the evolutionary relationship between the two species using cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) data. COI data suggested that O. victoriae is a single species (rather than a species complex) and is closely related to O. hexactis (a separate species). Since their recent divergence in the mid-Pleistocene, O. victoriae and O. hexactis likely persisted differently throughout glacial maxima, in deep-sea and Antarctic island refugia, respectively. Genetic connectivity, within and between the Antarctic continental shelf and islands, was also observed and could be linked to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and local oceanographic regimes. Signatures of a probable seascape corridor linking connectivity between the Scotia Sea and Prydz Bay are also highlighted. We suggest that survival in Antarctic island refugia was associated with increase in arm number and a switch from broadcast spawning to brooding in O. hexactis, and propose that it could be linked to environmental changes (such as salinity) associated with intensified interglacial-glacial cycles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17428-17446
Number of pages19
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number23
Early online date2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


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