Background: The mechanisms that underlie the diversification of tropical animals remain poorly understood, but new approaches that combine geo-spatial modeling with spatially explicit genetic data are providing fresh insights on this topic. Data about the diversification of tropical mammals remain particularly sparse, and vanishingly few opportunities exist to study endangered large mammals that increasingly exist only in isolated pockets. The chimpanzees of Cameroon represent a unique opportunity to examine the mechanisms that promote genetic differentiation in tropical mammals because the region is home to two chimpanzee subspecies: Pan troglodytes ellioti and P. t. trogolodytes. Their ranges converge in central Cameroon, which is a geographically, climatically and environmentally complex region that presents an unparalleled opportunity to examine the roles of rivers and/or environmental variation in influencing the evolution of chimpanzee populations.
Results: We analyzed microsatellite genotypes and mtDNA HVRI sequencing data from wild chimpanzees sampled at a fine geographic scale across Cameroon and eastern Nigeria using a spatially explicit approach based upon Generalized Dissimilarity Modeling. Both the Sanaga River and environmental variation were found to contribute to driving separation of the subspecies. The importance of environmental variation differed among subspecies. Gene-environment associations were weak in P. t. troglodytes, whereas environmental variation was found to play a much larger role in shaping patterns of genetic differentiation in P. t. ellioti.
Conclusions: We found that both the Sanaga River and environmental variation likely play a role in shaping patterns of chimpanzee genetic diversity. Future studies using single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data are necessary to further understand how rivers and environmental variation contribute to shaping patterns of genetic variation in chimpanzees.