Aim The Mediterranean region is often regarded as a crossroads where species of various origins meet. However, the biogeographical relationships between this region and contiguous Saharan, Macaronesian and Irano-Turanian regions have not been investigated in detail. The aim of this study was to characterize the phylogeography of the circum-Mediterranean species Myrtus communis and to investigate the origin of isolated central Saharan populations of Myrtus nivellei.
Location The distribution ranges of M. communis from Macaronesia to the Irano-Turanian region (173 sampled populations) and of M. nivellei in the mountains (Hoggar, Tassili n’Ajjer, Immidir, Tibesti) of the central Sahara (23 populations).
Methods Nuclear ribosomal DNA (nrDNA) sequences of Myrtaceae were used to root the phylogeny of Myrtus, and to date its crown node, according to a detailed review of the palaeobotanical records used for multiple fossil calibration. Chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) sequences were analysed through the determination of genetic diversity indices and by statistical phylogeography.
Results Both cpDNA and nrDNA markers indicated east–west genetic differentiation within M. communis. During the late Miocene, a key vicariance event affected the previous circum-Mediterranean distribution of Myrtus, leading to the isolation of eastern populations. During the late Miocene or early Pliocene, two clades diverged: one is now scattered in the Mediterranean Basin and adjacent regions, whereas the other evolved in the western Mediterranean region. The differentiation of lineages during the Plio-Pleistocene occurred mainly in the western part of the Mediterranean Basin, which has been at the origin of migrations towards Macaronesian islands and Saharan mountains. This is one of the first plant phylogeographical studies to report migrations from the Mediterranean to the Sahara.
Main conclusions The genus Myrtus has persisted in the Mediterranean region since at least the Neogene and its biogeography reflects the cumulation of the species’ responses to successive palaeoenvironmental changes. The current distribution of the genus Myrtus in the Mediterranean Basin and in isolated areas, such as the Macaronesian islands and Saharan mountains, can be explained by the striking ability of this plant not only to persist locally in various refugia, but also to migrate.