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Out of Africa: north-westwards Pleistocene expansions of the heather Erica arborea


Aurélie Désamoré, Institut de Botanique, B22, Sart Tilman, Université de Liège, B4000, Liège, Belgium.


Aim  The heather Erica arborea L. is a dominant element of the circum-Mediterranean region. Its broad, disjunct distribution, ranging from Macaronesia to eastern Africa, is consistent with the fragmentation of the evergreen tropical and subtropical forests that dominated Europe and North Africa in the Tertiary. This study aims to investigate phylogeographical patterns in E. arborea and to determine whether the current disjunct distribution of the species is a relict of a once wider distribution, or a recent range expansion in response to the establishment of suitable conditions.

Location  Mediterranean, Macaronesia, North and eastern Africa.

Methods  A total of 105 samples were collected across the species’ distribution range and sequenced at four cpDNA loci (atpB–rbcL, matK, trnH–psbA and rpl16). Phylogenetic reconstructions, molecular dating techniques and Bayesian ancestral area reconstructions were used in combination with population genetic statistics (haplotype diversity, NST, FST, Fu’s FS) to describe the pattern of present genetic diversity in E. arborea and infer its biogeographical history.

Results  Haplotype diversity in Macaronesia and the east and central Mediterranean is much lower than that observed in eastern Africa/Arabia and the western Mediterranean. Bayesian ancestral area reconstructions and molecular dating suggest that E. arborea colonized the Mediterranean westwards from eastern Africa/Arabia at least twice during a time period ranging between the upper Miocene and the upper Pleistocene.

Main conclusions  The phylogeography of E. arborea involves a complex history of range expansions and contractions, which has resulted in a pattern of distribution that mimics that expected for a Tertiary vicariance event. Despite the presence of a late Tertiary refugium in the Iberian Peninsula, the current distribution of the species throughout the Mediterranean is explained by a Pleistocene expansion originating from eastern Africa. One explanation for the isolation of the Iberian refugium is the rapidity of the most recently identified colonization wave, as inferred by the absence of global phylogeographical signal in the data and significantly negative values of Fu’s FS statistic for European populations. Macaronesia was colonized during each of these two expansion waves, confirming that the laurisilva (laurel forest flora) is a complex entity including both ancient relicts and recent colonizers.