Aim To investigate the phylogeographical patterns of red deer (Cervus elaphus) in Europe, and to disentangle the influence of ancient (e.g. Pleistocene ice ages) from more recent processes (e.g. human translocations).
Methods In this study we provide by far the most extensive analysis of genetic structure in European red deer, based on analyses of variation at two mitochondrial markers (cyt b and D-loop) in a large number of individuals from 39 locations. Relationships of mitochondrial DNA haplotypes were determined using minimum spanning networks and phylogenetic analyses. Population structure was examined by analyses of molecular variance. Historical processes shaping the present patterns were inferred from nested clade analysis and nucleotide diversity statistics.
Results Within Europe, we detected three deeply divergent mitochondrial DNA lineages. The three lineages displayed a phylogeographical pattern dividing individuals into western European, eastern European and Mediterranean (Sardinia, Spain and Africa) groups, suggesting contraction into three separate refugia during the last glaciation. Few haplotypes were shared among these three groups, a finding also confirmed by FST values. Calculations of divergence times suggest that the groups probably split during the Pleistocene.
Main conclusions The observed pattern is interpreted to result from isolation in different refugia during the last glaciation. The western and eastern European lineages could be linked to an Iberian and Balkan refugium, respectively. The third lineage might originate from a Sardinian or African refugium. We link local phylogeographical patterns observed in Europe to the post-glacial recolonization process, shaped by the geographical localization of refugia and barriers to gene flow. Regardless of the importance of red deer as a game species and the tradition of translocating red deer in Europe, we detected few individuals that did not match the trichotomous pattern, suggesting that translocations have occurred mainly at smaller spatial scales.