Pleistocene refugia in an arid landscape: analysis of a widely distributed Australian passerine


Alicia Toon, Fax: +61 (0)7 3735 7459; E-mail:


While many studies have documented the effect that glacial cycles have had on northern hemisphere species, few have attempted to study the associated effect of aridification at low latitudes in the southern hemisphere. We investigated the past effects that cyclic aridification may have had on the population structure and history of a widespread endemic Australian bird species, the Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen). One thousand one hundred and sixty-six samples from across its native range were analysed for mitochondrial control region sequence variation and variation at six microsatellite loci. Analysis of mitochondrial control region sequence data indicated monophyletic clades that were geographically congruent with an eastern and western region. The contemporary distribution of east and west clades is nonoverlapping but in close proximity. Populations were estimated to have diverged in the Pleistocene around 36 000 years ago. The putative Carpentarian and Nullarbor arid barriers appear to be associated with the divergence between east and west mainland populations. Nested clade analysis indicated a signature of range expansion in the eastern region suggesting movement possibly inland and northward subsequent to the last period of aridity. The island population of Tasmania was of very recent origin, possibly since sea levels rose 16 000 years ago. Given the east-west structure, there was no congruence between morphology and recent history of this species indicating a lack of support for morphological taxa. Overall mitochondrial DNA and microsatellite variation suggest that increasing aridity and Pleistocene refugia played a role in structuring populations of the Australian magpie; however, the dispersal ability and generalist habitat requirements may have facilitated the movement of magpies into an almost contiguous modern distribution across the continent. This study supports the idea that Pleistocene aridification played an important role in structuring intraspecific variation in low latitudinal southern hemisphere avian species.