The influence of Pleistocene glacial refugia on tawny owl genetic diversity and phylogeography in western Europe



    Corresponding author
    1. American Museum of Natural History, Ornithology Department, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, NY 10024, USA
    Search for more papers by this author

Patrícia H. Brito, Fax: 212 7695759; E-mail:


The glacial refugia hypothesis indicates that during the height of the Pleistocene glaciations the temperate species that are today widespread in western Europe must have survived in small and climatically favourable areas located in the southern peninsulas of Iberia, Italy and Balkans. One such species is the tawny owl, a relatively sedentary, nonmigratory bird presently distributed throughout Europe. It is a tree-nesting species closely associated with deciduous and mixed coniferous woodlands. In this study I used control region mtDNA sequences from 187 individuals distributed among 14 populations to determine whether current genetic patterns in tawny owl populations were consistent with postglacial expansion from peninsular refugia. European, North African and Asian tawny owls were found to represent three distinct lineages, where North Africa is the sister clade to all European owls. Within Europe, I found three well-supported clades that correspond to each of the three allopatric refugia. Expansion patterns indicate that owls from the Balkan refugium repopulated most of northern Europe, while expansion out of Iberia and Italy had only regional effects leading to admixture in France. Estimates of population divergence times between refugia populations are roughly similar, but one order of magnitude smaller between Greece and northern Europe. Based on a wide range of mutation rates and generation times, divergence between refugia appears to date to the Pleistocene.