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Keywords:

  • allozyme electrophoresis;
  • Balkan Peninsula;
  • climatic oscillations;
  • genetic structure;
  • geographical isolation;
  • phylogeography;
  • range expansion;
  • range retraction

Glacial and interglacial cycles of the Pleistocene have led to severe range fluctuations of many species. These range shifts of the past often are reflected by extant genetic signatures. Retractions of distribution areas often have fostered splits into several small and isolated retreats as remnants of the formerly interconnected range. These processes often go in line with losses of intraspecific diversity. By contrast, large and interconnected distribution ranges mostly sustain high levels of genetic variability. The genetic impact of both scenarios strongly depends on the temporal scale. In the present study, we tested the genetic effects of an assumed long-lasting widespread distribution during glacial periods and more short-term population retractions to mountain archipelagos during warm stages. We analyzed polymorphic allozymes for individuals of the Eastern Large Heath butterfly, Coenonympha rhodopensis, including major parts of its distribution, such as central Italy and the Balkan Peninsula. Our data show extraordinarily high genetic diversity. The only remarkable genetic split is detectable between the central Apennines (Italy) and the Balkan mountain systems. The populations sampled over seven Balkan mountain systems (Jakupica, Shar Planina, Ossogovo, Pirin, Rila, Rhodopes, and Stara Planina) show low genetic differentiation. This low genetic differentiation and high genetic diversity diverges from the genetic structures frequently found in species with disjunct distributions. We therefore hypothesize that the obtained molecular structure is the product of down-slope shift during the last cold stage and subsequent expansion over the lowlands of the Balkan Peninsula. The current mountain restriction most probably occurred with the beginning of the postglacial warming, which is too short a time span to be of evolutionary relevance. Therefore, the recent high genetic diversities and low differentiation may still reflect long-lasting glacial panmixia but not (yet) the recent disjunction. The strong genetic differentiation between the Balkans and Italian Apennines must result from an earlier dispersal process, most probably from the Balkans to Italy. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 110;, 281–290.