Species distinction and evolutionary relationships of the Italian hare (Lepus corsicanus) as described by mitochondrial DNA sequencing


E. Randi. Fax: +39 (0) 51 79 66 28; E-mail:met0217@iperbole.bo.it


The taxonomic status of the Italian hare Lepus corsicanus has been uncertain since its first description by W. E. de Winton in 1898 (de Winton WE. Annual Magazine of Natural History, London, 1898, 1, 149–158). The distribution range of this species has shrunk severely over the last few decades owing to overhunting and restocking with nonindigenous brown hares (L. europaeus) in central and southern Italy and Sicily. Recently, scanty populations of Italian hares were rediscovered, and samples for morphological and molecular analyses were collected. Nucleotide sequences of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region and cytochrome b indicate that L. corsicanus is a phylogenetically distinct species, which can be identified by concordant morphological and mtDNA traits. It seems to be reproductively isolated and apparently does not hybridize with sympatric brown hares. Phylogenetic analyses suggest that Italian and brown hares are not closely related sister taxa, but belong to distinct evolutionary lineages that dispersed in western Europe in different periods during the early Pleistocene. The Italian hare probably differentiated in isolated refuges in southern Italy during the last glaciation. Comparative analyses of mismatch distributions suggest that hares have had different demographic histories during the Pleistocene, which resulted in phylogeographical structuring in Italian hares, but not in brown and mountain (L. timidus) hares. The Italian hare is an endangered endemism and needs urgent conservation efforts.