In this article we explore the evolutionary history of a functional complex at the molecular level in plethodontid salamanders. The complex consists of a proteinaceous courtship pheromone, a pheromone-producing gland on the male's chin, and a set of behaviors for delivering the pheromone to the female. Long-term evolutionary stasis is the defining feature of this complex at both the morphological and behavioral levels. However, our previous assessment of the pheromone gene, plethodontid receptivity factor (PRF), revealed rapid evolution at the molecular level despite stasis at higher levels of organization. Analysis of a second pheromone gene, sodefrin precursor-like factor (SPF), now indicates that evolutionary decoupling in this complex is pervasive. The evolutionary profiles of SPF and PRF are remarkably similar in that: (a) both genes exhibit high levels of sequence diversity both within and across taxa, (b) genetic diversity has been driven by strong positive selection, and (c) the genes have evolved heterogeneously in different salamander lineages. The composition of the pheromone signal as a whole, however, has experienced an extraordinary evolutionary transition. Whereas SPF has been retained throughout the 100 MY radiation of salamanders, PRF has only recently been recruited to a pheromone function (27 million years ago). When SPF and PRF coexist in the same clade, they show contrasting patterns of evolution. When one shows rapid evolution driven by positive selection, the other shows neutral divergence restrained by purifying selection. In one clade, the origin and subsequent rapid evolution of PRF appear to have interfered with the evolution and persistence of SPF, leading to a pattern of evolutionary replacement. Overall, these two pheromone genes provide a revealing window on the dynamics that drive the evolution of multiple traits in a signaling complex.
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Vol. 61 • No. 1