Molecular systematics and biogeography of the Neotropical monkey genus, Alouatta

Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2003 Jan;26(1):64-81. doi: 10.1016/s1055-7903(02)00308-1.


We take advantage of the broad distribution of howler monkeys from Mexico to Argentina to provide a historical biogeographical analysis on a regional scale that encompasses the entire Neotropics. The phylogenetic relationships among 9 of the 10 recognized Alouatta species were inferred using three mitochondrial and two nuclear genes. The nuclear gene regions provided no phylogenetic resolution among howler monkey species, and were characterized by very low levels of sequence divergence between Alouatta and the Ateles outgroup. The mtDNA genes, on the other hand, produced a well-resolved phylogeny, which indicated that the earliest split among howler monkeys separated cis- and trans-Andean clades. Eight monophyletic mtDNA haplotype clades were identified, representing six named species in South America, including Alouatta seniculus, Alouatta sara, Alouatta macconelli, Alouatta caraya, Alouatta belzebul, and Alouatta guariba, and two in Mesoamerica, Alouatta pigra and Alouatta palliata. Molecular clock-based estimates of branching times indicated that contemporary howler monkey species originated in the late Miocene and Pliocene, not the Pleistocene. The causes of Alouatta diversification were more difficult to pin down, although we posit that the initial cis-, trans-Andean split in the genus was caused by the late Miocene completion of the northern Andes. Riverine barriers to dispersal and putative forest refuges can neither be discounted nor distinguished as causes of speciation in many cases, and one, the other or both have likely played a role in the diversification of South American howler monkeys. Finally, we estimated the separation of Mesoamerican A. pigra and A. palliata at 3Ma, which corresponds to the completion date of the Panama Isthmus promoting a role for this earth history event in the speciation of Central American howler monkeys.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alouatta / genetics*
  • Animals
  • Central America
  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Geography*
  • South America
  • Time Factors


  • DNA, Mitochondrial