There are few studies that have investigated the evolutionary history of large vertebrates on islands off the Caribbean coast of South America. Here we use the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) to investigate among- and within-population patterns of genetic diversity to understand connectivity between island and mainland populations. The spectacled caiman is naturally distributed across Central and South America including the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, which are considered to have the only natural insular populations of the species. Because of this apparent isolation, we sought to determine whether caimans on Trinidad and Tobago comprise a unique lineage and have reduced genetic diversity compared to mainland caimans. We test these hypotheses by using mitochondrial DNA variation to assess the phylogenetic and phylogeographical relationships of the C. crocodilus populations inhabiting these islands within the evolutionary context of the entire spectacled caiman complex. Phylogenetic analyses placed the Trinidad and Tobago samples together with samples from Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil into one well-supported clade, which corresponds to the defined Orinoco/upper Negro lineage. Interestingly, the majority of sequences from Trinidad and Tobago are similar or identical to haplotypes reported from Venezuela and Colombia, supporting the idea of a dispersal process from the Orinoco River to these islands. We discuss the implications of our findings for systematics and the conservation of the species and how these dispersal movements could shape the current phylogeographical structure depicted for C. crocodilus.
- island biogeography