Echiniscus Virginicus Complex: The First Case of Pseudocryptic Allopatry and Pantropical Distribution in Tardigrades

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Mainly because of the problems with species delineation, the biogeography of microscopic organisms is notoriously difficult to elucidate. In this contribution, variable nuclear and mitochondrial DNA markers were sequenced from individual specimens representing the Echiniscus virginicus complex that are morphologically indistinguishable under light microscopy (five populations from the temperate Eastern Nearctic and 13 populations from the subtropical and tropical zone). A range of methods was used to dissect components of variability within the complex (Bayesian inference, haplotype networks, Poisson tree processes, automatic barcode gap discovery delineations, principal components analysis and ANOVA). We found deep divergence between the temperate Eastern Nearctic E. virginicus and pantropical Echiniscus lineatus in all three genetic markers. In contrast, intraspecific genetic variation was very low, regardless of the geographical distance between the populations. Moreover, for the first time, statistical predictions of tardigrade geographical distributions were modelled. The factor determining the allopatric geographical ranges of deceptively similar species analysed in this study is most likely to be the type of climate. Our study shows that widespread tardigrade species exist, and both geographical distribution modelling and the genetic structure of populations of the pantropical E. lineatus suggest wind-mediated (aeolian) passive long-distance dispersal.