Aim Carex atrofusca has an arctic–alpine distribution in the Northern Hemisphere, with only a few, disjunct localities known in the European Alps. These alpine populations are declining in number and size. In contrast, C. atrofusca has a wide circumpolar distribution range and is abundant in large parts of the Arctic. The degree of genetic differentiation of the alpine populations and their importance for the conservation of the intraspecific genetic variation of the species is unknown.
Location Eurasia and Greenland, with emphasis on the European Alps.
Methods We applied amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) fingerprinting and sequences of chloroplast DNA to determine the position of the alpine populations in a circumpolar phylogeography of C. atrofusca and to unravel the patterns of genetic diversity and differentiation within the Alps.
Results Two distinct major groups were detected in a neighbour-joining analysis of AFLP data and in parsimony analysis of chloroplast DNA sequences: one consisting of the populations from Siberia and Greenland and one consisting of all European populations as sister to the populations from Central Asia. Within Europe, the populations from the Tatra Mountains and those from Scotland and Scandinavia formed two well-supported groups, whereas the alpine populations did not constitute a group of their own. The genetic variation in the Alps was almost completely partitioned among the populations, and the populations were almost invariable.
Main conclusions The alpine populations possibly originated due to immigration from Central Asia. The strong differentiation among them suggests that genetic drift has been strongly acting on the populations, either as a consequence of founder events during colonization or due to subsequent reduction of population sizes during warm stages of the Holocene.