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Keywords:

  • CITES;
  • European water frog complex;
  • invasion;
  • Pelophylax esculentus;
  • Pelophylax ridibundus;
  • Rana ridibunda

Abstract

In Western Europe, many pond owners introduce amphibians for ornamental purposes. Although indigenous amphibians are legally protected in most European countries, retailers are circumventing national and international legislation by selling exotic nonprotected sibling species. We investigated to what extent non-native species of the European water frog complex (genus Pelophylax) have become established in Belgium, using morphological, mitochondrial and nuclear genetic markers. A survey of 87 sampling sites showed the presence of non-native water frogs at 47 locations, mostly Marsh frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus). Surprisingly, at least 19% of all these locations also harboured individuals with mitochondrial haplotypes characteristic of Anatolian water frogs (Pelophylax cf. bedriagae). Nuclear genotyping indicated widespread hybridization and introgression between P. ridibundus and P. cf. bedriagae. In addition, water frogs of Turkish origin obtained through a licensed retailer, also contained P. ridibundus and P. cf. bedriagae, with identical haplotypes to the wild Belgian populations. Although P. ridibundus might have invaded Belgium by natural range expansion from neighbouring countries, our results suggest that its invasion was at least partly enhanced by commercial trade, with origins as far as the Middle East. Also the invasion and rapid spread of Anatolian lineages, masked by their high morphological similarity to P. ridibundus, is likely the result of unregulated commercial trade. We expect that Anatolian frogs will further invade the exotic as well as the native range of P. ridibundus and other Pelophylax species elsewhere in Western and Central Europe, with risks of large-scale hybridization and introgression.