Aim A central question in evolutionary ecology is the nature of environmental barriers that can limit gene flow and induce population genetic divergence, a first step towards speciation. Here we study the geographical barrier constituted by the transition zone between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, using as our model Cymodocea nodosa, a seagrass distributed throughout the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic, from central Portugal to Mauritania. We also test predictions about the genetic footprints of Pleistocene glaciations.
Location The Atlantic–Mediterranean transition region and adjacent areas in the Atlantic (Mauritania to south-west Portugal) and the Mediterranean.
Methods We used eight microsatellite markers to compare 20 seagrass meadows in the Atlantic and 27 meadows in the Mediterranean, focusing on the transition between these basins.
Results Populations from these two regions form coherent groups containing several unique, high-frequency alleles for the Atlantic and for the Mediterranean, with some admixture west of the Almeria–Oran Front (Portugal, south-west Spain and Morocco). These are populations where only one or a few genotypes were found, for all but Cadiz, but remarkably still show the footprint of a contact zone. This extremely low genotypic richness at the Atlantic northern edge contrasts with the high values (low clonality) at the Atlantic southern edge and in most of the Mediterranean. The most divergent populations are those at the higher temperature range limits: the southernmost Atlantic populations and the easternmost Mediterranean, both potential footprints of vicariance.
Main conclusions A biogeographical transition region occurs close to the Almeria–Oran front. A secondary contact zone in Atlantic Iberia and Morocco results from two distinct dispersal sources: the Mediterranean and southernmost Atlantic populations, possibly during warmer interglacial or post-glacial periods. The presence of high-frequency diagnostic alleles in present-day disjunct populations from the southernmost Atlantic region indicates that their separation from all remaining populations is ancient, and suggests an old, stable rear edge.