American oaks share a common northern ancestor

Last updated: 13 Oct, 2017

A new paper, published in New Phytologist, tells the evolutionary story of American oak for the first time.


If you had gone down to the woods in northern Canada, 45 million years ago, you might have encountered the distant ancestor of all of the oaks in the Americas. That single species gave rise to 220 more and two distinct lineages – red oaks and white oaks – that moved south through the boreal zone to populate large swaths of the continent all the way into Mexico. These two findings – simultaneous evolutionary diversification in the red and white oaks, each following the same geographic routes; and two relatively recent origins of the Mexican oaks – are a surprise conclusion to a scientific mystery that went unresolved until now.



"Despite the fact that the genus Quercus dominates wooded ecosystems of North America and Mexico in both number and biomass, we knew very little prior to this study about relationships among species, and even about genetic distinctiveness of many of the oaks we sampled for the paper," said lead author Andrew Hipp of The Morton Arboretum. "Our finding that the red oaks and white oaks diversified simultaneously and in parallel in the Americas explains much of the diversity of American oaks: there is not just one major oak lineage in the Americas, but two, and a few smaller ones. When you add these together, you find you have a lot of oak diversity."


To reach their conclusions, the lead researchers spent years collecting specimens and extracting DNA from more than 300 oak samples from the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. The scientists read large numbers of regions of the genome from each sample using next generation DNA sequencing methods, then reconstructed roughly 40,000 regions of the genome using computational methods. They then estimated the oak tree of life using statistical methods. This estimate of oak evolutionary history served as the framework to infer the distribution of each species in biogeographic and ecological space, and to reconstruct the evolutionary history of ecological and species diversification in the genus.



The results explain a long-standing question that collaborator Jeannine Cavender-Bares of the University of Minnesota has been studying: why do distantly related oak species occur together more often than expected? Cavender-Bares spent her sabbatical in Mexico in 2011 funded by a Fulbright grant at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico with Antonio Gonzalez-Rodriguez, an oak specialist and collaborator on the study. They collected and studied the Mexican oaks for the project. "Including the Mexican oaks in the analysis was critical," says Cavender-Bares, "because they revealed starkly increased rates of diversification as a consequence of the dynamic rise of the mountain chains in that region with volcanic activity some 10-20 million years ago."


Read the paper: Hipp, A. L., Manos, P. S., González-Rodríguez, A., Hahn, M., Kaproth, M., McVay, J. D., Avalos, S. V. and Cavender-Bares, J. (2017) Sympatric parallel diversification of major oak clades in the Americas and the origins of Mexican species diversity. New Phytologist. doi:10.1111/nph.14773


This is an edited version of the original press release.