Understanding and resolving conflicts between phenotypic and genetic differentiation is central to evolutionary research. While phenotypically monomorphic species may exhibit deep genetic divergences, some morphologically distinct taxa lack notable genetic differentiation. Here we conduct a molecular investigation of an enigmatic shorebird with a convoluted taxonomic history, the White-faced Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus dealbatus), widely regarded as a subspecies of the Kentish Plover (C. alexandrinus). Described as distinct in 1863, its name was consistently misapplied in subsequent decades until taxonomic clarification ensued in 2008. Using a recently proposed test of species delimitation, we reconfirm the phenotypic distinctness of dealbatus. We then compare three mitochondrial and seven nuclear DNA markers among 278 samples of dealbatus and alexandrinus from across their breeding range and four other closely related plovers. We fail to find any population genetic differentiation between dealbatus and alexandrinus, whereas the other species are deeply diverged at the study loci. Kentish Plovers join a small but growing list of species for which low levels of genetic differentiation are accompanied by the presence of strong phenotypic divergence, suggesting that diagnostic phenotypic characters may be encoded by few genes that are difficult to detect. Alternatively, gene expression differences may be crucial in producing different phenotypes whereas neutral differentiation may be lagging behind.
Rheindt, F. E., Szekely, T., Edwards, S. V., Lee, P. L. M., Burke, T., Kennerley, P. R., Bakewell, D. N., Alrashidi, M., Kosztolanyi, A., Weston, M. A., Liu, W. T., Lei, W. P., Shigeta, Y., Javed, S., Zefania, S., & Kupper, C. (2011). Conflict between genetic and phenotypic differentiation: The evolutionary history of a 'lost and rediscovered' shorebird. PLoS ONE, 6(11), [e26995]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0026995