1. This study examines phylogeography and phylogeny of the threatened stone crayfish, Austropotamobius torrentium, in order to elucidate the role of the Dinaric Karst geology in shaping the evolutionary history and genetic diversity of aquatic fauna in the western Balkans. Mitochondrial 16S rRNA and COI genes were partially sequenced from 188 and 159 crayfish, respectively, sampled from 70 localities. Phylogenetic relationships were reconstructed using four methods of phylogenetic inference. Divergence times between phylogroups were estimated in a Bayesian framework, and their demographic history was examined using neutrality tests and mismatch distribution analysis.
2. Seven geographically localised phylogroups separated by pronounced genetic gaps were found. Five of them have a distribution range within the northern-central Dinaric (NCD) region, while the remaining two include populations from the southern Balkans (SB) and central and south-eastern Europe (CSE). The oldest divergence event separated two NCD lineages from the rest of populations in the Late Miocene or Early Pliocene. Divergences amongst the five NCD phylogroups and SB + CSE occurred in the Pliocene. The most recent split separated SB and CSE phylogroups during the Late Pliocene. For both genes, uncorrected pairwise divergences between most of the phylogroups (4.1–8.7% for COI and 1.6–4.8% for 16S rRNA) were of the same range as, or higher than, some of the interspecific distances previously reported for the genus Austropotamobius.
3. Geographically isolated and deeply divergent cryptic monophyletic phylogroups within A. torrentium in the NCD region arose in the course of intensification of Neotectonic movements during the Pliocene and the beginning of the Pleistocene and the development of karstification that has heavily fragmented the palaeohydrography of the area. The results confirm a gradual north–south expansion of stone crayfish during the pre-Pleistocene that preceded the rapid northward post-glacial re/colonisation of central Europe (CSE phylogroup) through the Danube drainage.
4. Austropotamobius torrentium comprises morphologically cryptic but molecularly distinct taxa. Considering the relatively small geographical areas they inhabit, the NCD phylogroups of stone crayfish should be given the highest conservation priority.
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