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Phylogenetic Analysis and Molecular Dating Suggest That Hemidactylus anamallensis Is Not a Member of the Hemidactylus Radiation and Has an Ancient Late Cretaceous Origin


Background of the Work

The phylogenetic position and evolution of Hemidactylus anamallensis (family Gekkonidae) has been much debated in recent times. In the past it has been variously assigned to genus Hoplodactylus (Diplodactylidae) as well as a monotypic genus ‘Dravidogecko’ (Gekkonidae). Since 1995, this species has been assigned to Hemidactylus, but there is much disagreement between authors regarding its phylogenetic position within this genus. In a recent molecular study H. anamallensis was sister to Hemidactylus but appeared distinct from it in both mitochondrial and nuclear markers. However, this study did not include genera closely allied to Hemidactylus, thus a robust evaluation of this hypothesis was not undertaken.


The objective of this study was to investigate the phylogenetic position of H. anamallensis within the gekkonid radiation. To this end, several nuclear and mitochondrial markers were sequenced from H. anamallensis, selected members of the Hemidactylus radiation and genera closely allied to Hemidactylus. These sequences in conjunction with published sequences were subjected to multiple phylogenetic analyses. Furthermore the nuclear dataset was also subjected to molecular dating analysis to ascertain the divergence between H. anamallensis and related genera.

Results and Conclusion

Results showed that H. anamallensis lineage was indeed sister to Hemidactylus group but was separated from the rest of the Hemidactylus by a long branch. The divergence estimates supported a scenario wherein H. anamallensis dispersed across a marine barrier to the drifting peninsular Indian plate in the late Cretaceous whereas Hemidactylus arrived on the peninsular India after the Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate. Based on these molecular evidence and biogeographical scenario we suggest that the genus Dravidogecko should be resurrected.


Hemidactylus anamallensis, a gekkonid endemic to the Western Ghats of South India has undergone many taxonomic revisions, yet its phylogenetic position and taxonomic status remains unresolved. This species was originally described as a member of Hoplodactylus [1], [2], a genus in the family Diplodactylidae that is confined to New Zealand. Smith [3] assigned it to a new monotypic genus ‘Dravidogecko’ on the basis of the differences in subdigital pads and the arrangement of preanal pores, in the family Gekkonidae. Underwood [4] and Kluge [5] also demonstrated that Dravidogecko was a gekkonid gecko and not a member of the family Diplodactylidae. Russell [6], [7] on the basis of digital structure hypothesised that Dravidogecko was closely related to Hemidactylus group within family Gekkonidae. Later, Bauer and Russell [8] synonymised Dravidogecko as Hemidactylus, renaming it as Hemidactylus anamallensis, because there were no morphological features that were unique to Dravidogecko when compared with Hemidactylus. They also suggested that H. anamallensis could be a primitive Hemidactylus.

Hemidactylus is a species rich genus with 122 recognised species [9] distributed worldwide and has been identified predominantly on the basis of its phalangeal taxonomy [3], [6], [10], [11]. Russell [6] suggested that the genera Briba, Cosymbotus, Dravidogecko and Teratolepis also belong to Hemidactylus. Carranza and Arnold [12] undertook one of the most comprehensive phylogenetic studies of Hemidactylus based on mitochondrial 12S rRNA and cytochrome b sequenced from 30 species sampled from around the world. Their phylogeny retrieved five well supported clades. Three subsequent studies that included additional species (around 14) also retrieved the aforementioned clades [13][15]. In Carranza and Arnold [12] phylogeny Cosymbotus (distributed in Southeast Asia) and Briba (monotypic genus from Brazil) were deeply nested within the Hemidactylus group, hence they synonymised these genera with Hemidactylus. Bauer et al. [13], using molecular data from five genes, showed that Teratolepis was deeply embedded within the tropical Asian clade of Hemidactylus along with the ground dwelling geckos endemic to Indian subcontinent. Therefore, they synonymised it with Hemidactylus, renaming it as Hemidactylus imbricatus. These studies did not include H. anamallensis. Thus, its affinity to Hemidactylus based on morphological data needs to be evaluated using molecular data.

Within the Hemidactylus radiation, H. anamallensis has been assigned to the H. bowringii complex in the tropical Asian clade by Zug et al. [16]. Whereas Bauer et al. [13] suspected that H. anamallensis is part of a highly derived lineage, consisting of H. albofaciatus-imbricatus-reticulatus within the H. brookii complex in the tropical Asian clade. Thus, both the above scenarios would predict H. anamallensis to be deeply nested within the Hemidactylus radiation, but differ with respect to its exact phylogenetic position. These scenarios are in sharp contrast to Bauer and Russell's [8] hypothesis, wherein they considered H. anamallensis to be a primitive Hemidactylus, thereby suggesting that phylogenetically it could be sister to all the Hemidactylus species. These putative phylogenetic positions of H. anamallensis generate very different biogeographical scenarios for the origin and spread of both H. anamallensis and other Hemidactylus species of the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly, in a recent molecular work by Bansal and Karanth [15], H. anamallensis was indeed sister to all the Hemidactylus thus supporting Bauer and Russell [8] hypothesis. Nevertheless their results also suggested that “H. anamallensis” was genetically distinct from other Hemidactylus. However, in their study genera closely allied to Hemidactylus were not included, thus a robust evaluation of the phylogenetic position of H. anamallensis with respect to the genus Hemidactylus could not be undertaken. Therefore, the authors called for a re-examination of its allocation to the genus Hemidactylus with additional molecular data from related genera.

The objective of this study was to investigate the phylogenetic position of H. anamallensis within the gekkonid radiation. To this end, several nuclear and mitochondrial markers were sequenced from multiple H. anamallensis samples and these sequences were combined with published sequences of gekkonids. These alignments were then subjected to multiple phylogenetic analyses. Results from these analyses in conjunction with molecular dating were used to understand the origin and biogeography of H. anamallensis.


Phylogenetic position of H. anamallensis within Gekkonidae (C-mos and 12S rRNA dataset)

All tree building methods retrieved a strongly supported clade consisting of the genera Agamura, Crossobamon, Cyrtodactylus, Cyrtopodian, Geckoella, Hemidactylus, Stenodactylus and Tropicolotes. Members of this clade, henceforth referred to as deletion clade, also shared a 21 bp deletion in the C-mos gene (Bayesian tree shown in figure 1a and b). The relationships between members of the deletion clade were also identical across tree-building methods. Within the deletion clade, Hemidactylus (excluding H. anamallensis) formed a clade with high support. Additionally it was observed that the members of this Hemidactylus clade shared a unique 9 bp insertion in the C-mos gene (figure 1b). However, this insertion was not seen in H. anamallensis. In all the trees H. anamallensis emerged as sister to the rest of the Hemidactylus radiation. For a list of sequences used and their accession numbers see table 1.

Figure 1.

(a): Bayesian tree based on combined dataset of C-mos and 12S rRNA genes showing the relationships among the members of the family Gekkoninae. The numbers at the nodes represent the maximum likelihood bootstrap/posterior probability. */* Indicates the bootstrap support ≥90%/Bayesian posterior probability of 1, -/indicates bootstrap support ≤50% and Bayesian posterior probability of <0.5. Black arrow represents the node that constitutes the members of the deletion clade and the white arrow represents the node, which separates the taxa with insertion (Hemidactylus). (b) C-mos DNA sequence alignment-showing indels among some members of the family Gekkoninae.

Clarifying the position of H. anamallensis within the clade consisting of Hemidactylus and other closely related genera (RAG-1 and PDC dataset)

In all the methods of phylogenetic inference, H. anamallensis emerged as sister to Hemidactylus and was separated from Hemidactylus by a long branch (Bayesian tree shown in figure 2). Genera Cyrtodactylus and Geckoella were sister to Hemidactylus-H. anamallensis clade. The overall topology of the Bayesian, ML and MP trees were similar with respect to the relationships among Cyrtodactylus, Geckoella, Hemidactylus and H. anamallensis. For a list of sequences used and their accession numbers see table 1.

Figure 2. Bayesian estimates of dates based on RAG-1 and PDC dataset.

Bayesian posterior probabilities and maximum likelihood bootstrap supports are shown at the base of the nodes. Grey bars indicate the credible intervals. Black circle on the node represents the fixed date node and the hollow circle represents minimum age constraint node. Black arrow represents the node at which H. anamallensis split from the Hemidactylus lineage (68.9 mya) and white arrow represents the node at which Indian Hemidactylus lineage started radiating (36.47 mya). */* indicates the bootstrap support ≥90% and Bayesian posterior probability of 1, −/− indicates the bootstrap support ≤50% and Bayesian posterior probability of <0.5. K-T indicates Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary and I/A indicates the date of collision of India with Asian plate. For the complete tree see figure S1 and table S4.

Divergence dates estimates

Bayesian estimation of divergence dates suggests that the ancestral lineage leading to H. anamallensis and the remaining Hemidactylus (node C) diverged from each other around 68.9 million years ago (mya) (95% HPD 45.15–92.65 mya) (figure 2, table 2). Additionally the lineage leading to the remaining Hemidactylus underwent radiation much later around 49.62 mya (Node D, 95% HPD 32.12–67.12 mya) (figure 2, table 2). The divergence dates estimated at the other nodes in this analysis were concordant with the divergence dates from previous studies [17][19].

Table 2. Estimated ages in Myr and in the corresponding 95% HPD for the nodes labelled in fig. 2.


The molecular data presented in the current study provided interesting insights into the phylogenetic position of H. anamallensis within Gekkonidae. The C-mos and 12S rRNA dataset suggested that H. anamallensis was part of a large clade consisting of genera such as Agamura, Cyrtodactylus, Cyrtopodian, Geckoella, Hemidactylus, Stenodactylus, and Tropiocolotes (figure 1). This clade received high posterior probability and bootstrap support and, more importantly the members of this clade shared a 21 bp deletion that was not seen in any other gekkonid. Within the deletion clade H. anamallensis was sister to Hemidactylus. H. anamallensis and Hemidactylus were also retrieved as sister to each other by RAG-1 and PDC dataset. Thus the nuclear markers support Bauer and Russell's [8] hypothesis that H. anamallensis might be a primitive Hemidactylus.

Interestingly in the C-mos gene, a 9 bp insertion was observed among Hemidactylus (figure 1b). This insertion was unique to the Hemidactylus lineage and was not shared with any other Gekkonid including H. anamallensis. Furthermore in the RAG-1 + PDC tree H. anamallensis was separated form the rest of the Hemidactylus by a long branch. Thus among nuclear markers H. anamallensis appeared distinct from the remaining Hemidactylus.

Our divergence date estimates based on both fossils as well as biogeographical events suggested that the divergence between the lineage leading to H. anamallensis and the rest of the Hemidactylus lineage occurred around 68.9 mya (95% HPD 48.15–89.65) (figure 2, table 2) in the late Cretaceous. However, the remaining members of the Hemidactylus lineage radiated much later around 49.62 mya (95% HPD 36.12–63.12) (figure 2, table 2) in the Eocene. During the late Cretaceous period peninsular Indian landmass was isolated from all other landmasses having separated from Madagascar around 80 mya. Nevertheless fossil evidence suggested that peninsular India, during its northward journey, remained close to Africa and Eurasia until it collided with the Asian plate around 55 mya [20], [21]. Thus faunal links between peninsular Indian and these landmasses were maintained by vagile animals, which were able to surmount minor marine barriers [20]. Interestingly members of the deletion clade (figure 1a), which consisted of genera closely related to H. anamallensis, are distributed predominantly in Northern Africa and Asia. This distribution pattern suggested that basal radiation within this clade might have occurred on these landmasses. Furthermore during the early stages of this radiation one of the lineages might have dispersed on to the drifting peninsular Indian plate where it eventually evolved into H. anamallensis. Much later, around 49.62 mya, the genus Hemidactylus underwent radiation (figure 2, table 2) probably on the Asian plate [12] and dispersed to other parts of the world including peninsular India. Recent molecular studies on Hemidactylus revealed that India harboured an endemic radiation [14], [15]. According to our dating estimate, this Indian radiation occurred around 36.47 mya (Node E) (95% HPD 19.89–53.05 mya) (figure 2, table 2). Taken together these dates suggested that Hemidactylus arrived on the Indian plate after peninsular India collided with Asia. During this time H. anamallensis was already present in India, having dispersed on to drifting peninsular India before collision. In a recent molecular study a similar late Cretaceous dispersal of frogs on to drifting peninsular India has been reported [22].

Thus, the dating estimates suggests that H. anamallensis has a unique biogeographical history that appears to be very different from that of the remaining Hemidactylus. Additionally H. anamallensis also appears to be genetically distinct from the remaining Hemidactylus. Taken together, these results support the reassignment of H. anamallensis to a separate genus by resurrection of Dravidogecko, the genus to which H. anamallensis was previously assigned. In the past, authors have sunk Dravidogecko into Hemidactylus, as there were no morphological features that were unique to Dravidogecko [7], [8], [23]. According to Bauer et al. [8] the characteristic undivided lamellae seen in H. anamallensis is not unique to this species as it is shared with a highly derived lineage of ground dwelling Hemidactylus spp. of South Asia. They suggested that H. anamallensis was part of this highly derived lineage within the H. brookii complex. However the present study does not support this relationship as in both the phylogenies H. anamallensis is not sister to H. brookii within the Hemidactylus radiation. Thus this character (undivided lamellae) appears to have been secondarily derived in one of the lineages of Hemidactylus.

Materials and Methods

Sample collection and DNA sequencing

Genera that are purported to be closely related to Hemidactylus such as Cyrtodactylus, Cyrtopodian, Geckoella as well as H. anamallensis were collected opportunistically from across India (table 1). Total DNA was extracted from the tail clippings stored in absolute alcohol following standard proteinase K protocol [24]. Three nuclear, C-mos, recombination activation gene (RAG-1) and phosducin (PDC), and one mitochondrial marker, 12S ribosomal RNA (12S rRNA), were PCR amplified from the above samples. All PCR amplifications were carried out in 25 µl reaction volume, with 1.5 unit of Taq DNA polymerase (Bangalore Genei, Bangalore, India), 0.25 mM of dNTP's (Bangalore Genei), 2.0 mM of MgCl2, 1 ul of 0.5 mg/ml of BSA, 0.1 µM (Sigma) of each primer and 40 ng of DNA. Primer combinations and thermocycler conditions are given in supporting information (tables S1 & S2). PCR products were purified using QIAquick PCR Purification kit (Qiagen) and sequences were obtained commercially from Eurofins Biotech Pvt. Ltd. (Bangalore, India). For the remaining genera of the family Gekkonidae, sequences were downloaded from GenBank (table 1). Percent sequence generated for this study: C-mos 30%, 12S rRNA 20%, RAG-18%, PDC 8%.

Phylogenetic analyses

The sequences generated here were combined with published sequences to derive two different datasets. First, to determine the phylogenetic position of H. anamallensis within Gekkonidae, the sequences generated by us were added to a combined dataset of the nuclear C-mos and mitochondrial 12S rRNA genes generated by Feng et al. [25]. To clarify the position H. anamallensis within the clade consisting of Hemidactylus and other closely related genera: RAG-1 and PDC datasets generated by Bauer et al. [13], Gamble et al. [17] and Bansal and Karanth [15] were used. In both the above datasets representatives from all the five clades of the Hemidactylus radiation were included. These sequences were aligned using ClustalW 1.6 [26] in the software MEGA v. 4.1 [27], using default parameters. These two datasets were then subjected to maximum parsimony (MP), maximum likelihood (ML) and Bayesian analyses. The two datasets could not be combined because there was a lack of overlap in sequence data between them. The C-mos+12S rRNA dataset generated by Feng et al. [25] had sequences largely for family Gekkonidae, thus this dataset was useful in inferring the position of H. anamalensis within Gekkonidae radiation. However RAG-1 + PDC dataset generated by Gamble et al. [17] had representatives of all the closely related families of Gekkonidae and therefore was useful in molecular dating (see below). Furthermore, in the case of RAG-1+ PDC extensive sequence data was available for Hemidactylus from previous works by Bauer et al. [13], and Bansal and Karanth [15]. Thus this dataset was also useful in clarifying the position of H. anamalensis within the clade consisting of Hemidactylus and other closely related genera.

The MP tree was derived through a heuristic search in in PAUP* version 4.0b10 [28] with tree bisection–reconnection branch swapping and 10 replicates of random addition options. Here transversions were weighted based on empirically determined transition/transversion ratios. Supports for various nodes were evaluated through 1000 replicates of bootstrapping in parsimony analysis. Phylogenetic inference using ML algorithm was also performed in PAUP with the substitution model chosen by MODELTEST [29] and tree bisection–reconnection branch swapping and 10 replicates of random addition options. Since PAUP does not allow for partitioning the dataset for ML search, another ML tree was derived in RAxML [30] wherein the dataset was partitioned. Bayesian analysis was run in Mr. Bayes version 3.1 [31] using the mixed model (see supporting information for partitioning scheme) with variable priors for 107 generations with four chains, wherein sampling was undertaken for every 100 generations. All sample points before the stage when the Markov chain reached a stable likelihood value were discarded as burn-in determined in Tracer v 1.4.1 [32]. The remaining trees were imported into PAUP* to generate a majority-rule consensus tree and to derive posterior probabilities for each node. Gaps were treated as missing data for all analyses.

Analysis of insertions and deletions (indels) in C-mos gene

C-mos is a proto-oncogene that encodes the protein serine/threonine kinase that regulates meiotic maturation in germ cells [33]. It is a single-copy gene that lacks introns and repetitive elements. Insertions and deletions in C-mos have been reported to be uncommon [34]. However, Han et al. [35] reported a 21 bp deletion in C-mos that was shared by some gekkonids. Additionally, our preliminary analysis suggested that members of the Hemidactylus radiation shared a 9 bp insertion. Given that indels are quite rare in coding regions, such changes could be used as phylogenetically informative characters for determine the position of H. anamallensis. Thus we checked the C-mos alignment for the presence of these indels in Hemidactylus (including H. anamallensis) and other related genera.

Molecular dating

The RAG-1 and PDC dataset (1439 characters) was also used to determine the divergence dates among H. anamallensis, Hemidactylus and other closely related genera. Independent calibrations from previously published studies [17][19] were used to constrain nodes in the divergence date analyses. Two out of five calibrations used in the previous studies were excluded from further analysis by the fossil cross- validation method used by Gamble et al. [17]. The excluded calibrations were (i) the minimum age of Paradelma orientalis/Pygopus nigriceps split, using the fossil Pygopus hortulanus, (ii) the maximum age of squamates, using the oldest known squamate fossil. The calibration points included and used to infer the divergence dates were: (i) Fossil Primaderma nessovi [36] was used to constrain the Helodermatidae/Anguidae split (exponential distribution, mean 3.0, offset 99.0). (ii) Two amber preserved specimens of Sphaerodactylus spp. [37], [38] were used to constrain the node constituting Sphaerodactylus species (exponential distribution, mean 5.0, offset 23.0). (iii) The split of Teratoscincus scincus- Teratoscincus roborowskii [39] which was purported to have occurred due to Tein Shan-Pamir uplift in western China, 10 Ma [40], [41] (Normal distribution, mean 10.0, SD 0.5)

The dataset was partitioned into two genes (RAG-1 1044 bp, PDC 395 bp) and the model of sequence evolution as mentioned in supporting information (table S3) was applied to both the partitions. Given that a strict clock model of molecular evolution is purported to be biologically unrealistic [42] a relaxed molecular clock model with uncorrelated lognormal distribution and Yule process tree prior (as recommended for species level phylogenies) were used. These analyses were undertaken in the program BEAST v 1.6.1 [43]. Base frequencies were estimated in BEAST, and gamma distribution categories were set to four. A default setting for substitution rate was used. The program was run for 5×107 generations. Tracer v 1.4.1 [32] was used to determine convergence and effective sample sizes for the run.

Supporting Information

Figure S1.

Bayesian estimates of dates based on RAG-1 and PDC dataset. Bootstrap supports and Bayesian posterior probabilities are shown at the base of the nodes. Grey bars indicate the credible intervals. K-T indicates Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary and I/A indicates the date of collision of India with Asian plate.


Table S2.

Thermo cycler profile used for amplification of genes.


Table S3.

Partitioning scheme and model of sequence evolution for the genes in the datasets. The datasets were partitioned according to the genes in both MrBayes and RAxML.


Table S4.

Estimated ages (in Myr) of the nodes and the corresponding 95% CI for the nodes labelled in figure S1.



We are very grateful to Aniruddha Dutta Roy, Saunak Pal, Mrugank Prabhu and S P Vijayakumar of CES, IISc for providing us with the H. anamallensis samples and Varad Giri of BNHS for helping us with identification of the samples. We thank Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) granted to CES, IISc under which some H. anamallensis samples were collected. We are also thankful to Aniruddha Dutta Roy, Chetan Nag and Ishan Agarwal for providing us with samples of other geckos from different locations in India. Thanks to Prof. N V Joshi of CES, IISc for helping us with the statistical analysis and Karnataka State Forest Department for collection permits.

Author Contributions

Conceived and designed the experiments: RB KPK. Performed the experiments: RB. Analyzed the data: RB KPK. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: RB KPK. Wrote the paper: RB KPK.


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