Some previous genetic studies have been performed to resolve the molecular phylogenetics of the squirrel monkeys (Saimiri). However, these studies did not show consensus in how many taxa are within this genus and what the relationships among them are. For this reason, we sequenced 2,237 base pairs of the mt COI and COII genes in 218 Saimiri individuals. All, less 12 S. sciureus sciureus from French Guyana, were sampled in the wild. These samples represented all the living Saimiri taxa recognized. There were four main findings of this study. (1) Our analysis detected 17 different Saimiri groups: albigena, cassiquiarensis, five polyphyletic macrodon groups, three polyphyletic ustus groups, sciureus, collinsi, boliviensis, peruviensis, vanzolinii, oerstedii and citrinellus. Four different phylogenetic trees showed the Central American squirrel monkey (S. oerstedii) as the most differentiated taxon. In contrast, albigena was indicated to be the most recent taxon. (2) There was extensive hybridization and/or historical introgression among albigena, different macrodon groups, peruviensis,sciureus and collinsi. (3) Different tests showed that our maximum likelihood tree was consistent with two species of Saimiri: S. oerstedii and S. sciureus. If no cases of hybridization were detected implicating S. vanzolinii, this could be a third recognized species. (4) We also estimated that the first temporal splits within this genus occurred around 1.4–1.6 million years ago, which indicates that the temporal split events within Saimiri were correlated with Pleistocene climatic changes. If the biological species concept is applied because, in this case, it is operative due to observed hybridization in the wild, the number of species within this genus is probably more limited than recently proposed by other authors. The Pleistocene was the fundamental epoch when the mitochondrial Saimiri diversification process occurred.
- Biological species concept
- Mitochondrial COI and COII genes
- Phylogenetics and phylogeography
- Pleistocene climatic changes