It is unknown how pelagic marine protists undergo diversification and speciation. Superficially, the open ocean appears homogeneous, with few clear barriers to gene flow, allowing extensive, even global, dispersal. Yet, despite the apparent lack of opportunity for genetic isolation, diversity is prevalent within marine taxa. A lack of candidate isolating mechanisms would seem to favor sympatric over allopatric speciation models to explain the diversity and biogeographic patterns observed in the oceans today. However, the ocean is a dynamic system, and both current and past circulation patterns must be considered in concert to gain a true perspective of gene flow through time. We have derived a comprehensive picture of the mechanisms potentially at play in the high latitudes by combining molecular, biogeographic, fossil, and paleoceanographic data to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the polar planktonic foraminifer Neogloboquadrina pachyderma sinistral. We have discovered extensive genetic diversity within this morphospecies and that its current "extreme" polar affinity did not appear until late in its evolutionary history. The molecular data demonstrate a stepwise progression of diversification starting with the allopatric isolation of Atlantic Arctic and Antarctic populations after the onset of the Northern Hemisphere glaciation. Further diversification occurred only in the Southern Hemisphere and seems to have been linked to glacial-interglacial climate dynamics. Our findings demonstrate the role of Quaternary climate instability in shaping the modern high-latitude plankton. The divergent evolutionary history of N. pachyderma sinistral genotypes implies that paleoceanographic proxies based on this taxon should be calibrated independently
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