• Commensal rodent;
  • invasive species;
  • island colonization;
  • Madagascar;
  • mitochondrial DNA;
  • phylogeography;
  • Rattus rattus


Aim  To describe the phylogeographic patterns of the black rat, Rattus rattus, from islands in the western Indian Ocean where the species has been introduced (Madagascar and the neighbouring islands of Réunion, Mayotte and Grande Comore), in comparison with the postulated source area (India).

Location  Western Indian Ocean: India, Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, Grande Comore and Mayotte.

Methods  Mitochondrial DNA (cytochrome b, tRNA and D-loop, 1762 bp) was sequenced for 71 individuals from 11 countries in the western Indian Ocean. A partial D-loop (419 bp) was also sequenced for eight populations from Madagascar (97 individuals), which were analysed in addition to six previously published populations from southern Madagascar.

Results  Haplotypes from India and the Arabian Peninsula occupied a basal position in the phylogenetic tree, whereas those from islands were distributed in different monophyletic clusters: Madagascar grouped with Mayotte, while Réunion and Grand Comore were present in two other separate groups. The only exception was one individual from Madagascar (out of 190) carrying a haplotype that clustered with those from Réunion and South Africa. ‘Isolation with migration’ simulations favoured a model with no recurrent migration between Oman and Madagascar. Mismatch distribution analyses dated the expansion of Malagasy populations on a time-scale compatible with human colonization history. Higher haplotype diversity and older expansion times were found on the east coast of Madagascar compared with the central highlands.

Main conclusions  Phylogeographic patterns supported the hypothesis of human-mediated colonization of R. rattus from source populations in either the native area (India) or anciently colonized regions (the Arabian Peninsula) to islands of the western Indian Ocean. Despite their proximity, each island has a distinct colonization history. Independent colonization events may have occurred simultaneously in Madagascar and Grande Comore, whereas Mayotte would have been colonized from Madagascar. Réunion was colonized independently, presumably from Europe. Malagasy populations may have originated from a single successful colonization event, followed by rapid expansion, first in coastal zones and then in the central highlands. The congruence of the observed phylogeographic pattern with human colonization events and pathways supports the potential relevance of the black rat in tracing human history.