Extreme levels of hidden diversity in microscopic animals (Rotifera) revealed by DNA taxonomy

Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2009 Oct;53(1):182-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2009.04.011. Epub 2009 May 4.


Knowledge and estimates of species richness at all scales are biased both by our understanding of the evolutionary processes shaping diversity and by the methods used to delineate the basic units of diversity. DNA taxonomy shows that diversity may be underestimated by traditional taxonomy, especially for microscopic animals. The effects of such hidden diversity are usually overlooked in ecological studies. Here, we estimate hidden diversity in bdelloid rotifers, a group of microscopic animals. We analyse cryptic diversity using a coalescent approach to infer taxonomical units from phylogenetic trees. Cryptic diversity was measured for eight traditional species of bdelloid rotifers and the results compared to that of the monogonont rotifer Brachionus plicatilis species complex, which is well studied and for which cross-mating experiments have been performed to explicitly define some of the species boundaries. A taxonomic inflation of up to 34 potential cryptic taxa was found in bdelloids. Cryptic taxa within each traditional species may be spatially isolated, but do not have narrower ecological niches. The species deemed as generalists exhibit the highest cryptic diversity. Cryptic diversity based on molecular characterization is commonly found in animals; nevertheless, the amount of cryptic diversity in bdelloids is much higher than in other groups analysed so far, maybe because of their peculiar parthenogenetic reproduction, other than microscopic size. We discuss this hypothesis in the light of the available empirical evidence from other groups of microscopic invertebrates, such as tardigrades and mites, which share size, habitat heterogeneity, potential for dispersal, and/or parthenogenetic reproduction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Ecosystem
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Speciation
  • Geography
  • Phylogeny*
  • Rotifera / classification
  • Rotifera / genetics*
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Species Specificity


  • DNA, Mitochondrial