Glacial survival and local adaptation in an alpine leaf beetle


Russell Naisbit, Fax: +41 (0)32 718 3001; E-mail:


The challenge in defining conservation units so that they represent evolutionary entities has been to combine both genetic properties and ecological significance. Here we make use of the complexity of the European Alps, with their genetic landscape shaped by geographical barriers and postglacial colonization, to examine the correlation between ecological and genetic divergence. Montane species, because of the fragmentation of their present habitat, constitute extreme cases in which to test if genetically distinct subgroups based on neutral markers are also ecologically differentiated and show local adaptation. In the leaf beetle Oreina elongata, populations show variation in host plant use and a patchy distribution throughout the Alps and Apennines. We demonstrate that despite very strong genetic isolation (FST = 0.381), variation in host plant use has led to differences in larval life-history traits between populations only as a secondary effect of host defence chemistry, and not through physiological adaptation to plant nutritional value. We also establish that populations that are more ecologically different in terms of larval performance are also more genetically divergent. In addition, morphological variation used to define subspecies appears to be mirrored in the population genetics of this species, resulting in almost perfect clustering based on microsatellite data. Finally, we argue from their strong genetic structure and congruent distribution that the subspecies of O. elongata were divided among the same glacial refugia within the Alps that have been proposed for alpine plants.