Trigo, T. C., Tirelli, F. P., Freitas, T. R. O., & Eizirik, E. (2014). Comparative assessment of genetic and morphological variation at an extensive hybrid zone between two wild cats in southern Brazil. PLoS ONE, 9(9), e108469.
Increased attention towards the Neotropical cats Leopardus guttulus and L. geoffroyi was prompted after genetic studies identified the occurrence of extensive hybridization between them at their geographic contact zone in southern Brazil. This is a region where two biomes intersect, each of which is associated with one of the hybridizing species (Atlantic Forest with L. guttulus and Pampas with L. geoffroyi). In this study, we conducted in-depth analyses of multiple molecular markers aiming to characterize the magnitude and spatial structure of this hybrid zone. We also performed a morphological assessment of these species, aiming to test their phenotypic differentiation at the contact zone, as well as the correlation between morphological features and the admixture status of the individuals. We found strong evidence for extensive and complex hybridization, with at least 40% of the individuals sampled in Rio Grande do Sul state (southernmost Brazil) identified as hybrids resulting from post-F1 generations. Despite such a high level of hybridization, samples collected in this state still comprised two recognizable clusters (genetically and morphologically). Genetically pure individuals were sampled mainly in regions farther from the contact zone, while hybrids concentrated in a central region (exactly at the interface between the two biomes). The morphological data set also revealed a strong spatial structure, which was correlated with the molecular results but displayed an even more marked separation between the clusters. Hybrids often did not present intermediate body sizes and could not be clearly distinguished morphologically from the parental forms. This observation suggests that some selective pressure may be acting on the hybrids, limiting their dispersal away from the hybrid zone and perhaps favoring genomic combinations that maintain adaptive phenotypic features of one or the other parental species.