An Alu-Based Phylogeny of Gibbons (Hylobatidae)
Gibbons (Hylobatidae) are small, arboreal apes indigenous to Southeast Asia that diverged from other apes ∼15–18 Ma. Extant lineages radiated rapidly 6–10 Ma and are organized into four genera (Hylobates, Hoolock, Symphalangus, and Nomascus) consisting of 12–19 species. The use of short interspersed elements (SINEs) as phylogenetic markers has seen recent popularity due to several desirable characteristics: the ancestral state of a locus is known to be the absence of an element, rare potentially homoplasious events are relatively easy to resolve, and samples can be quickly and inexpensively genotyped. During radiation of primates, one particular family of SINEs, the Alu family, has proliferated in primate genomes. Nomascus leucogenys (northern white-cheeked gibbon) sequences were analyzed for repetitive content with RepeatMasker using a custom library. The sequences containing Alu elements identified as members of a gibbon-specific subfamily were then compared with orthologous positions in other primate genomes. A primate phylogenetic panel consisting of 18 primate species, including 13 gibbon species representing all four extant genera, was assayed for all loci, and a total of 125 gibbon-specific Alu insertions were identified. The resulting amplification patterns were used to generate a phylogenetic tree. We demonstrate significant support for Symphalangus as the most basal lineage within the family. Our findings also place Nomascus as a derived lineage, sister to Hoolock, with the Nomascus–Hoolock clade sister to Hylobates. Further, our analysis groups N. leucogenys and Nomascus siki as sister taxa to the exclusion of the other Nomascus species assayed. This study represents the first use of SINEs to determine the genus level phylogenetic relationships within the family Hylobatidae. These relationships have been resolved with robust support at most internal nodes, demonstrating the utility of SINE-based phylogenetic analysis. We postulate that hybridization and rapid radiation may have contributed to the complex and contradictory findings of the previous studies. Our findings will aid in the conservation of these threatened primates and inform future studies of the biogeographical history and distribution of modern gibbon species.