Through the examination of past and present distributions of plants and animals, historical biogeographers have provided many insights on the dynamics of the massive organismal exchange between North and South America. However, relatively few phylogeographic studies have been attempted in the land bridge of Mesoamerica despite its importance to better understand the evolutionary forces influencing this biodiversity 'hotspot'. Here we use mitochondrial DNA sequence data from fresh samples and formalin-fixed museum specimens to investigate the genetic and biogeographic diversity of the threatened Mesoamerican spiny-tailed lizards of the Ctenosaura quinquecarinata complex. Species boundaries and their phylogeographic patterns are examined to better understand their disjunct distribution. Three monophyletic, allopatric lineages are established using mtDNA phylogenetic and nested clade analyses in (i) northern: México, (ii) central: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and (iii) southern: Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The average sequence divergence observed between lineages varied between 2.0% and 3.7% indicating that they do not represent a very recent split and the patterns of divergence support the recently established nomenclature of C. quinquecarinata, Ctenosaura flavidorsalis and Ctenosaura oaxacana. Considering the geological history of Mesoamerica and the observed phylogeographic patterns of these lizards, major evolutionary episodes of their radiation in Mesoamerica are postulated and are indicative of the regions' geological complexity. The implications of these findings for the historical biogeography, taxonomy and conservation of these lizards are discussed.
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