The evolution and socio-ecology of two populations of the Vlei Rat, Otomys irroratus.
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This work investigated two important evolutionary processes - speciation and adaptive variation - in two chromosomally-distinct allopatric Natal Midlands populations of the vlei rat Otomys irroratus. The two populations, at Kamberg and Karkloof, differ in the presence of a tandem fusion between chromosomes seven and 12 in the Kamberg karyotype. Speciation studies considered possible reproductive isolating mechanisms. In studies of adaptive variation, socio-ecological characteristics of both populations were investigated. Data on breeding and postnatal development provided evidence of post-zygotic barriers. Interpopulation pairs had reduced breeding success compared to intrapopulation pairs, and some hybrids died before weaning. Surviving hybrids had reduced growth rates, and almost all were sterile. In tests of pre-mating reproductive isolation, ethological barriers were emphasized. Individuals preferred same-population mates, suggesting the existence of mate recognition, which was achieved by means of population-specific courtship behaviour and communication, particularly olfactory, tactile and visual cues. No evidence of population-specific acoustic signals was found, although acoustic cues were associated with agonistic interaction, complementing other communicatory cues to promote increased aggression during interpopulation pairings. Laboratory studies of behaviour and morphology and field work (trapping and habitat assessment) provided information about socio-ecological parameters. The Kamberg habitat was harsher than the Karkloof one, as revealed by differences in seasonal and spatial availability of food and·cover. Cover was the key determinant of the level of sociability of both populations. Sparse, patchy cover selected for a partially communal social system in Kamberg o. irroratus: females were intrasexually tolerant and males were intrasexually highly aggressive. This, in conjunction with male-biased sexual dimorphism, implied that mating was polygynous. Abundant, uniform cover selected for a dispersed social system in Karkloof o. irroratus: females were intrasexually less tolerant than males. Ritualized aggression between males and a low degree of male-biased sexual dimorphism suggested that male may have overlapping home ranges in nature and that mating is promiscuous. Females possibly mated with dominant males, however. Contrasting social systems suggest that adaptation to local environmental circumstances has occurred in allopatry, and that Kamberg and Karkloof o. irroratus are undergoing adaptive speciation. Post-zygotic and pre-mating reproductive barriers appear to have evolved independently in both populations, and could potentially impede gene flow between the populations should they become sympatric. The presence of the tandem fusion in the Kamberg karyotype which, together with genetically-determined factors, may have caused hybrid sterility, suggests that this population is a chromosomally-determined incipient sibling species.