The houbara bustard, Chlamydotis undulata, is a declining cryptic desert bird whose range extends from North Africa to Central Asia. Three subspecies are currently recognized by geographical distribution and morphology: C.u.fuertaventurae, C.u.undulata and C.u.macqueenii. We have sequenced 854 bp of mitochondrial control region from 73 birds to describe their population genetic structure with a particular sampling focus on the connectivity between C.u.fuertaventurae and C.u.undulata along the Atlantic seaboard of North Africa. Nucleotide and haplotypic diversity varied among the subspecies being highest in C.u.undulata, lowest in C.u.fuertaventurae and intermediate in C.u.macqueenii. C.u.fuertaventurae and C.u.undulata are paraphyletic and an average nucleotide divergence of 2.08% splits the later from C.u.macqueenii. We estimate that C.u.fuertaventurae and C.u.undulata split from C.u.macqueenii approximately 430 000 years ago. C.u.fuertaventurae and C.u.undulata are weakly differentiated (FST = 0.27, Nm = 1.3), indicative of a recent shared history. Archaeological evidence indicates that houbara bustards have been present on the Canary Islands for 130–170 000 years. However, our genetic data point to a more recent separation of C.u.fuertaventurae and C.u.undulata at around 20–25 000 years. Concordant archaeological, climatic opportunities for colonization and genetic data point to a scenario of: (i) initial colonization of the Canary Islands about 130 000 years ago; (ii) a period of secondary contact 19–30 000 years ago homogenizing any pre-existing genetic structure followed by; (iii) a period of relative isolation that persists today.
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