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An exceptional case of historical outbreeding in African sable antelope populations


Christian Pitra. Fax: (+ 49)030 5126104; E-mail:


Empirical investigations of intraspecific outbreeding and subsequent introgressive hybridization in natural populations are rare, particularly among conspecific populations of large mammals. Using mitochondrial DNA data [partial control region (496 basepairs — bp) and cytochrome b gene (343 bp) sequences analysed from 95 individuals representing 17 sampling locations scattered through the African miombo (Brachystegia) woodland ecosystem] and phylogeographical statistical procedures (gene genealogy, nested cladistic and admixture proportion analyses), we (i) give a detailed dissection of the geographical genetic structure of Hippotragus niger; (ii) infer the processes and events potentially involved in the population history; and (iii) trace extensive introgressive hybridization in the species. The present-day sable antelope population shows a tripartite pattern of genetic subdivision representing West Tanzanian, Kenya/East Tanzanian and Southern Africa locations. Nested clade analysis revealed that past allopatric fragmentation, caused probably by habitat discontinuities associated with the East African Rift Valley system, together with intermediary episodic long-distance colonization and restricted, recurrent gene flow have played an predominant role in shaping the extent of maternal genetic diversity (10.4%) and population structure. An extensive (average rate of admixture = 20.0%), but geographically circumscribed and unidirectional hybridization event in the past was inferred, resulting in an extreme (the highest discovered so far in mammals) intraspecific difference of 18.2% among morphologically monotypic sable antelopes from West Tanzania. The results are used to provide an evolutionary framework within which taxonomic implications and conservation decisions can be evaluated.