• contact zone;
  • mtDNA;
  • nested clade analysis;
  • phylogeography

The vlei rat Otomys irroratus has a wide distribution in southern Africa with several datasets indicating the presence of two putative species (O. irroratus and O. auratus). In the present study we use mitochrondrial cyt b data (∼950 bp) from 98 specimens (including museum material) collected throughout the range of the species to determine the geographical limits of the two recognized species, and we link this to niche modelling to validate these species. Phylogenetic analysis of the DNA sequence data, using maximum parsimony, neighbour joining and Bayesian inference, retrieved two divergent statistically well-supported clades. Clade A occurs in the Western and Eastern Cape while Clade B occurs in the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Mean sequence divergence between the two clades (A and B) was 7.0% and between sub-clades comprising clade B it was 4.8%; the two clades diverged during the Pleistocene. Within Clade A the mean sequence divergence among specimens was 1.91%. Niche modelling revealed that the incipient species occupy distinct bioclimatic niches associated with seasonality of precipitation. Our data allow insightful analysis into the factors that could have led to cladogenesis within this rodent. More significantly, the new data enable us to pinpoint the Eastern Cape province as a contact zone for the divergent species. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 104, 192–206.