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Keywords:

  • African savanna;
  • Bovidae;
  • coalescence;
  • mtDNA;
  • phylogeography;
  • Pleistocene refugia;
  • southern Africa;
  • Taurotragus oryx;
  • ungulates

Abstract

Aim  Previous genetic studies of African savanna ungulates have indicated Pleistocene refugial areas in East and southern Africa, and recent palynological, palaeovegetation and fossil studies have suggested the presence of a long-standing refugium in the south and a mosaic of refugia in the east. Phylogeographic analysis of the common eland antelope, Taurotragus oryx (Bovidae), was used to assess these hypotheses and the existence of genetic signatures of Pleistocene climate change.

Location  The sub-Saharan savanna biome of East and southern Africa.

Methods  Mitochondrial DNA control-region fragments (414 bp) from 122 individuals of common eland were analysed to elucidate the phylogeography, genetic diversity, spatial population structuring, historical migration and demographic history of the species. The phylogeographic split among major genetic lineages was dated using Bayesian coalescent-based methods and a calibrated fossil root of 1.6 Ma for the split between the common eland and the giant eland, Taurotragus derbianus.

Results  Two major phylogeographic lineages comprising East and southern African localities, respectively, were separated by a net nucleotide distance of 4.7%. A third intermediate lineage comprised only three haplotypes, from Zimbabwe in southern Africa. The estimated mutation rate of 0.097 Myr−1 revealed a more recent common ancestor for the eastern lineage (0.21 Ma; 0.07–0.37) than for the southern lineage (0.35 Ma; 0.10–0.62). Compared with the latter, the eastern lineage showed pronounced geographic structuring, lower overall nucleotide diversity, higher population differentiation, and isolation-by-distance among populations.

Main conclusions  The data support the hypothesis of Pleistocene refugia occurring in East and southern Africa. In agreement with palynological, palaeovegetation and fossil studies, our data strongly support the presence of a longer-standing population in the south and a mosaic of Pleistocene refugia in the east, verifying the efficacy of genetic tools in addressing such questions. The more recent origin of the common eland inhabiting East Africa could result from colonization following extinction from the region. Only two other dated African ungulate phylogenies have been published, applying different methods, and the similarity of dates obtained from the three distinct approaches indicates a significant event c. 200 ka, which left a strong genetic signature across a range of ungulate taxa.