Background: Phylogenetic studies of wild Canis species have relied heavily on the mitochondrial DNA control region (mtDNA CR) to infer species relationships and evolutionary lineages. Previous analyses of the CR provided evidence for a North American evolved eastern wolf (C. lycaon), that is more closely related to red wolves (C. rufus) and coyotes (C. latrans) than grey wolves (C. lupus). Eastern wolf origins, however, continue to be questioned. Therefore, we analyzed mtDNA from 89 wolves and coyotes across North America and Eurasia at 347 base pairs (bp) of the CR and 1067 bp that included the ATPase6 and ATPase8 genes. Phylogenies and divergence estimates were used to clarify the evolutionary history of eastern wolves, and regional comparisons of nonsynonomous to synonomous substitutions (dN/dS) at the ATPase6 and ATPase8 genes were used to elucidate the potential role of selection in shaping mtDNA geographic distribution.
Results: We found high concordance across analyses between the mtDNA regions studied. Both had a high percentage of variable sites (CR = 14.6%; ATP = 9.7%) and both phylogenies clustered eastern wolf haplotypes monophyletically within a North American evolved lineage apart from coyotes. Divergence estimates suggest the putative red wolf sequence is more closely related to coyotes (DxyCR = 0.01982 +/- 0.00494 SD; DxyATP = 0.00332 +/- 0.00097 SD) than the eastern wolf sequences (DxyCR = 0.03047 +/- 0.00664 SD; DxyATP = 0.00931 +/- 0.00205 SD). Neutrality tests on both genes were indicative of the population expansion of coyotes across eastern North America, and dN/dS ratios suggest a possible role for purifying selection in the evolution of North American lineages. dN/dS ratios were higher in European evolved lineages from northern climates compared to North American evolved lineages from temperate regions, but these differences were not statistically significant.
Conclusions: These results demonstrate high concordance between coding and non-coding regions of mtDNA, and provide further evidence that the eastern wolf possessed distinct mtDNA lineages prior to recent coyote introgression. Purifying selection may have influenced North American evolved Canis lineages, but detection of adaptive selection in response to climate is limited by the power of current statistical tests. Increased sampling and development of alternative analytical tools will be necessary to disentangle demographic history from processes of natural selection.