Living on a volcano's edge: Genetic isolation of an extremophile terrestrial metazoan

L. Cunha*, R. Montiel, M. Novo, P. Orozco-Terwengel, A. Rodrigues, A. J. Morgan, P. Kille

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Communities of organisms inhabiting extreme terrestrial environments provide a unique opportunity to study evolutionary forces that drive population structure and genetic diversity under the combined challenges posed by multiple geogenic stressors. High abundance of an invasive pantropical earthworm (and the absence of indigenous lumbricid species) in the Furnas geothermal field (Sao Miguel Island, Azores) indicates its remarkable tolerance to high soil temperature, exceptionally high carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels, and elevated metal bioavailability, conditions which are lethal for the majority of terrestrial metazoans. Mitochondrial and nuclear markers were used to analyze the relationship between populations living inside and outside the geothermal field. Results showed that Pontoscolex corethrurus (Annelida, Oligochaeta, Glossoscolecidae) to be a genetically heterogeneous complex within the Sao Miguel landscape and is probably differentiated into cryptic species. The population exposed to the hostile soil conditions within the volcanic caldera possesses the lowest within-population mitochondrial diversity but an unexpectedly high degree of nuclear variability with several loci evidencing positive selection, parameters indicative of a genetically unique population only distantly related to conspecifics living outside the caldera. In conclusion, P. corethrurus inhabiting active volcanic soil is a discrete extremophile population that has evolved by tolerating a mixture of non-anthropogenic chemical and physical stressors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)132-142
Number of pages11
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • cryptic speciation
  • earthworm
  • geothermal field
  • Pontoscolex corethrurus
  • population structure
  • volcanic soils


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