A number of evolutionary mechanisms have been suggested for generating low but significant genetic structuring among marine fish populations. We used nine microsatellite loci and recently developed methods in landscape genetics and coalescence-based estimation of historical gene flow and effective population sizes to assess temporal and spatial dynamics of the population structure in European flounder (Platichthys flesus L.). We collected 1062 flounders from 13 localities in the northeast Atlantic and Baltic Seas and found temporally stable and highly significant genetic differentiation among samples covering a large part of the species’ range (global FST = 0.024, P < 0.0001). In addition to historical processes, a number of contemporary acting evolutionary mechanisms were associated with genetic structuring. Physical forces, such as oceanographic and bathymetric barriers, were most likely related with the extreme isolation of the island population at the Faroe Islands. A sharp genetic break was associated with a change in life history from pelagic to benthic spawners in the Baltic Sea. Partial Mantel tests showed that geographical distance per se was not related with genetic structuring among Atlantic and western Baltic Sea samples. Alternative factors, such as dispersal potential and/or environmental gradients, could be important for generating genetic divergence in this region. The results show that the magnitude and scale of structuring generated by a specific mechanism depend critically on its interplay with other evolutionary mechanisms, highlighting the importance of investigating species with wide geographical and ecological distributions to increase our understanding of evolution in the marine environment.
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