The Dactylorhiza incarnata/maculata complex (Orchidaceae) was used as a model system to understand genetic differentiation processes in a naturally occurring polyploid complex with much of ongoing diversification and wide distribution in recently glaciated areas in northern Europe. Data were obtained for 12 hypervariable regions in the plastid DNA genome. A total of 166 haplotypes were found in a sample of 1099 plants. Allopolyploid taxa have inherited their plastid genomes from D. maculata s.l. Overall haplotype diversity of the combined group of allopolyploid taxa was comparable to that of maternal D. maculata s.l., but populations of allopolyploids were also more strongly differentiated from each other and contained lower numbers of haplotypes than populations of D. maculata s.l. In addition to haplotypes found in extant D. maculata s.l., the allopolyploids also contained several distinct and widespread haplotypes that were not found in any of the parental lineages. Some of these haplotypes were shared between widespread allopolyploids. Divergent allopolyploids with small distributions did not seem to originate from local polyploidization events, but rather as segregates of already existing allopolyploids. Genetic diversification of allopolyploid Dactylorhiza is the result of repeated polyploid formation, secondary hybridization and introgression between already existing polyploids and extant representatives of parental lineages, hybridization between independently derived polyploid lineages, and phyletic diversification in the group of allopolyploids. Although some polyploid taxa must have evolved after the last glaciation, genetic material from the parental lineages has been transferred continuously for longer periods of time. This combination of processes may explain the taxonomic complexity encountered in Dactylorhiza and other polyploid complexes distributed in previously glaciated parts of Europe.
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