Although many cases of genetic adaptations to high elevations have been reported, the processes driving these modifications and the pace of their evolution remain unclear. Many high-elevation adaptations (HEAs) are thought to have arisen in situ as populations rose with growing mountains. In contrast, most high-elevation lineages of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau appear to have colonized from low-elevation areas. These lineages provide an opportunity for studying recent HEAs and comparing them with ancestral low-elevation alternatives. Herein, we compare four frogs (three species of Nanorana and a close lowland relative) and four lizards (Phrynocephalus) that inhabit a range of elevations on or along the slopes of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. The sequential cladogenesis of these species across an elevational gradient allows us to examine the gradual accumulation of HEA at increasing elevations. Many adaptations to high elevations appear to arise gradually and evolve continuously with increasing elevational distributions. Numerous related functions, especially DNA repair and energy metabolism pathways, exhibit rapid change and continuous positive selection with increasing elevations. Although the two studied genera are distantly related, they exhibit numerous convergent evolutionary changes, especially at the functional level. This functional convergence appears to be more extensive than convergence at the individual gene level, although we found 32 homologous genes undergoing positive selection for change in both high-elevation groups. We argue that species groups distributed along a broad elevational gradient provide a more powerful system for testing adaptations to high-elevation environments compared with studies that compare only pairs of high-elevation versus low-elevation species.
Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America