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Keywords:

  • Emberiza schoeniclus;
  • gene flow;
  • microsatellite loci;
  • morphology;
  • mtDNA sequences;
  • population genetics

In passerine birds morphological differentiation in bill size within species is not commonly observed. Bill size is usually associated with a trophic niche, and strong differences in it may reflect the process of genetic differentiation and, possibly, speciation. We used both mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and nuclear microsatellites to study genetic variation between two subspecies of reed bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus schoeniclus and E.s. intermedia, along their distributional boundary in western Europe. These two subspecies are characterized by a high dimorphism in bill size and, although breeding populations of the two subspecies are found very close to each other in northern Italy, apparently no interbreeding occurs. The observed morphological pattern between the two subspecies may be maintained by geographically varying selective forces or, alternatively, may be the result of a long geographical separation followed by a secondary contact. MtDNA sequences of cytochrome b and ND5 (515 bp) showed little variation and did not discriminate between the two subspecies, indicating a divergence time of less than 500 000 years. The analysis of four microsatellite loci suggested a clear, although weak, degree of genetic differentiation in the large- and small-billed populations, as indicated by FST and RST values and genetic distances. The correlation between bill size and genetic distance between populations remained significant after accounting for the geographical distances between sampling localities. Altogether, these results indicate a very recent genetic differentiation between the two bill morphs and suggest that a strong selection for large bills in the southern part of the breeding range is probably involved in maintaining the geographical differentiation of this species.