Phylogeography of the pool frog Rana (Pelophylax) lessonae in the Italian peninsula and Sicily: multiple refugia, glacial expansions and nuclear–mitochondrial discordance


*Daniele Canestrelli, Dipartimento di Ecologia e Sviluppo Economico Sostenibile, Università della Tuscia, Largo dell’Università s.n.c., 01100 Viterbo, Italy. E-mail:


Aim  To infer the evolutionary history of Rana (Pelophylax) lessonae Camerano within its inferred Quaternary refugial range, and to shed light on the processes that have contributed to shaping the patterns of diversity within the southern European peninsulas.

Location  The Italian peninsula south of the Alps and Sicily.

Methods  Sequence analysis of a mitochondrial cytochrome b gene fragment in 149 individuals sampled from 25 localities.

Results  Three mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) phylogroups were identified, distributed in northern Italy, the whole Italian peninsula south of the northern Apennines, and Sicily. Syntopy between the northern and peninsular lineages was observed close to the northern Apennines. The northern lineage was the most differentiated, showing a net sequence divergence of 4.8 ± 0.8% with respect to the two others, whereas the net divergence between peninsular and Sicilian lineages was 2.6 ± 0.6%. Analysis of molecular variance (amova) revealed that 93% of the overall variation occurred between these three groups. Historical demographic statistics support a recent expansion for both the northern and peninsular groups, but not for the Sicilian group. In both northern and peninsular Italy, such an expansion was likely to have occurred during the last glaciation.

Main conclusions  Our results suggest that a number of microevolutionary processes were involved in shaping the present genetic structure of R. lessonae in Italy. These encompass allopatric differentiations in three distinct Pleistocene refugia, recent population expansions and secondary contacts. Our results, together with some previous work, support (1) the existence of a suture zone in the northern Apennines, and (2) the possibility of population expansions during the last glacial phase, when a vast widening of the lowland floodplain habitats followed sea-level fall, particularly in northern Italy. When compared with previous analyses of allozyme data, it appears that the peninsular mtDNA lineage has recently replaced the Sicilian one in southern Calabria, and we suggest that this event occurred due to selective introgression. The implications of such an occurrence for the study of factors underlying the patterns of diversity within this southern European biodiversity hotspot are discussed. Taxonomic implications of the results are also evaluated.