• isolation by distance;
  • mitochondrial DNA;
  • ND2;
  • Picus vaillantii;
  • Picus viridis;
  • population genetics

The green woodpecker complex consists of the green woodpecker (Picus viridis), distributed from Western Europe to the Caucasus and Iran, and the related LeVaillant's woodpecker (P. vaillantii), distributed in north-western Africa from central Morocco to Tunisia. Much of the habitat of green woodpeckers in Central and Northern Europe was covered by ice, tundra, steppe or other unsuitable habitat during the Pleistocene; consequently, they must have come to occupy most of their current range during the past 20 000 years. We used complete mitochondrial ND2 sequences from populations throughout the range to investigate the genetic structure and evolutionary history of this complex. Three well-differentiated clades, corresponding to three biogeographical regions, were recovered; 89% of the total genetic variance was distributed among these three regions. The populations in North Africa were sister to those of Europe and, within Europe, Iberia was sister to the rest of Europe and the Near East. This suggests that the post-glacial colonization of most of Europe occurred from a refuge east of Iberia, probably in Italy or the Balkans; there was no substantial divergence among these regions. In addition, a population sample from Iran was genetically distinct from those of Western Europe, indicating a history of genetic isolation and an additional Pleistocene refuge east of the well-known Balkan refugia and south of the Caucasus. Within Europe, northern populations were less genetically variable than southern ones, consistent with recent colonization. There was significant isolation-by-distance across Europe, indicating restricted gene flow; this was particularly apparent between western populations and those of the Caucasus and Iran. We recognize four species in the complex. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 104, 710–723.