• endogamy;
  • genetic divergence;
  • habitat preferences;
  • Mustela;
  • polymorphism;
  • sympatric differentiation

Understanding how genetic divergence could exist without spatial isolation is a fundamental issue in biology. Although carnivores have previously been considered as having a weak genetic variability, polecats Mustela putorius from eight distinct populations exhibited both a strong polymorphism (17.5–22.5%) and a substantial allele effective number reaching Ne=1.12. Heterozygosity ranging from Ho=0.031–0.063 significantly differed among populations, while the mean FIS averaging 0.388 stressed a real deficiency of heterozygotes. Observed heterozygosity levels among populations did not correlate with any habitat types but were clearly associated with habitat diversity index. The habitat structure in polecat home range corresponded to habitat mosaic structure in which discrete habitat types alternated causing multifactorial constraints that may favour heterozygosity. Allozymic frequencies within populations did not vary with dominant habitat. But in the Tyrosinase-1, the rare homozygote BB, resulting in a ‘dark’ phenotype, was found much more in deciduous woods than the homozygote AA showing the ‘typical’ pattern. Thus, the genetic basis for a character differentiation was here evidenced in a remarkable situation without spatial isolation. Further, the very low proportion of heterozygotes for this locus suggests a disruptive effect and supports the prediction of intermediate phenotypes being at a disadvantage. This heterozygote deficit may also result from an assortative mating intra phenotype (homogamy). The divergence in polecat phenotypes showed that genetic differentiation can be induced by subtle variations in environment, a situation that is likely to be frequent in most natural populations, and emphasized the adaptive nature of habitat preference.