Publication Date



Open access

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Biology (Arts and Sciences)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Michael Gaines

Second Committee Member

Douglas Crawford

Third Committee Member

Barbara Whitlock

Fourth Committee Member

Wm. David Webster


The marsh rice rat (Oryzomys palustris) is a semi-aquatic rodent endemic to the southeastern United States. Unlike most terrestrial small mammals, the marsh rice rat can easily disperse over water and has a close association with wetlands. These specialized traits have likely greatly shaped the genetic structure and diversity within this species. I studied genetic patterns within the marsh rice rat to understand how this species' specialized ecology, as well as the geologic and climatic history of the southeastern United States, affected the genetic structuring within this species. The phylogeography of many species in the southeastern United States has been studied and concordant geographic patterns of genetic variation exist among many of these species. Researchers have hypothesized that the biogeography of the southeastern United States has been influenced by the Pleistocene glacial cycles, producing similar genetic patterns within unrelated species. I first examined genetic patterns within the marsh rice rat at the macro scale of phylogenetics. This nominal species actually represents two cryptic species; populations in the eastern and western regions of its range are genetically divergent. I also identified three subspecies, in contrast to the six morphological subspecies historically recognized. The silver rice rat in the Lower Florida Keys and the Sanibel Island rice rat from Sanibel Island Florida are both subspecific taxa. Only one mainland marsh rice rat subspecies exists. I then studied the phylogeographic patterns within the marsh rice rat and determined that geographic patterns of genetic variation in this species are not concordant with the phylogeographic patterns uncovered in most other species of the southeastern United States. The genetic structuring within the marsh rice rat has been influenced not only by the geologic and climatic history of this region, but also by the species' semi-aquatic adaptation. I also studied genetic patterns at a micro scale by estimating present levels of gene flow and genetic diversity within populations. Gene flow is a contemporary factor in maintaining levels of genetic diversity within populations of the marsh rice rat. From the macro scale of phylogenetics to the micro scale of population genetics, the genetic structure of the marsh rice rat has been shaped by past climatic history and by this species' specialized ecology.


Microsatellites; Mitochondrial DNA; Systematics; Mammalogy; Population Genetics; Evolution