Tetragonula carbonaria, Tetragonula davenporti, Tetragonula hockingsi and Tetragonula mellipes comprise a species complex of Australian stingless bee species known as the ‘Carbonaria’ group. The species are difficult to distinguish morphologically and the major species-defining characters relate to comb architecture and nest entrance ornamentation. The taxonomy of the group is further complicated by likely nuclear mitochondrial pseudogenes (numts) and inter-specific hybrids. Here we demonstrate the existence of COI numts and isolate and characterize the ‘true’ mt-COI gene in T. carbonaria and T. hockingsi. Numts were isolated from enriched-nuclear DNA extraction followed by PCR amplification and Sanger sequencing, and were recognized by the presence of deletions and/or premature stop codons in the translated sequences. The mt-COI sequences were obtained from NGS sequencing using purified mtDNA. In T. carbonaria, two numts (numt1 and numt2) were identified and a third (numt3) was identified in T. hockingsi. Numt2 and numt3 are similar (1.2% sequence divergence), indicating a recent common origin. The genetic distance between the mt-COI of the two Tetragonula species was higher than might be expected for closely related species, 16.5%, corroborating previous studies in which T. carbonaria and T. hockingsi were regarded as separate species. The three numts are more similar to the COI of other stingless bee species, including Australian Austroplebia australis and South American Melipona bicolor (81.7–83.9%) than to the mt-COI of their own species (70–71.4%). This is because the mt-COI of T. carbonaria and T. hockingsi differ greatly from other Meliponinae. Our findings explain some formerly puzzling aspects of Carbonaria biogeography, and misinterpreted amplifications.
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