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Keywords:

  • cytochrome b;
  • mitochondrial DNA;
  • museum samples;
  • palaeoendemics

Abstract

The spatial genetic structure of Martino's vole, a rare palaeoendemic species of the western Balkans, was investigated using DNA isolated from archived museum samples. The study was based on partial sequencing (555 bp) of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene for 63 specimens from 20 different localities throughout the species’ range. Three highly divergent allopatric phylogenetic lineages (Northwestern, Central and Southeastern) were recognized among 47 haplotypes, suggesting three independent glacial differentiation centres within the western Balkans. The Northwestern lineage, which showed the highest divergence from all other samples (mean sequence divergence of 6.64% ± 1.10), comprised samples collected from northwest of the Neretva River in Croatia, western Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Central and Southeastern lineages were separated by an average sequence divergence of 2.95% ± 0.66 and were geographically divided by the Drim River (the Kosovo Basin in Serbia). Overall, haplotype diversity decreased from the Northwestern lineage to the Central and subsequently the Southeastern lineage, in a geographical pattern consistent with a stepping stone colonization. The observed distribution indicates a gradual southerly expansion with subsequent allopatry across the Neretva River and Drim River approximately 1 and 0.3 million years ago, respectively. Such a scenario is concordant with palaeontological evidence. Several highly divergent sublineages within the Northwestern and Central lineages showed no significant geographical structuring, suggesting secondary contact of allopatrically evolved lineages. We hypothesize that the topographical complexity of the Balkans promoted allopatry and isolation on a small geographical scale during interglacial periods, with secondary contact during glacial maxima. Furthermore, the three main lineages should be regarded as evolutionary significant units with important implications for conservation. Ecological data show that the Northwestern lineage in particular fulfils all criteria for a highly endangered, evolutionarily significant unit.