A re-appraisal of nunatak survival in arctic-alpine phylogeography


Gerald M. Schneeweiss, Fax: +43 1 4277 9541; E-mail: gerald.schneeweiss@univie.ac.at


A long standing and at times fervid debate in biogeography revolves around the question whether arctic and high alpine organisms survived Pleistocene ice ages on small island-like areas protruding above the ice-sheet, so-called nunataks, or whether they did so in peripheral nonglaciated refugial areas. A common picture emerging from a plethora of molecular phylogeographic studies in the last decade is that both in the Arctic and in temperate mountain ranges such as the European Alps nunatak survival needs to be only rarely invoked to explain observed genetic patterns (for a rare example see Stehlik et al. 2002). As two studies in this issue show, depreciation of the nunatak hypothesis is, however, not warranted. In this issue of Molecular Ecology Westergaard et al. (2011) investigate genetic patterns of two arctic-alpine plant species distributed on both sides of the Atlantic exclusively in areas that were mostly covered by ice-sheets during Pleistocene glacial advances. In both species, amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) data identified divergent and partly genetically diverse groups east and west of the Atlantic. This suggests, for the first time in Arctic plants, in situ survival on nunataks. In an entirely different geographic setting and on a different geographic scale, Lohse et al. (2011, this issue) study the colonization of high alpine areas in the Orobian Alps, situated within and adjacent to a prominent peripheral refugial area (massif de refuge) in the Southern Alps of northern Italy, by dispersal-limited carabid ground beetles. Using explicit hypothesis testing and inference of ancestral locations in a Bayesian framework, stepwise colonization from two separate southern refugia is found to shape the genetic pattern of these beetles, but at the northern edge, populations survived at least parts of the last glaciation in situ on nunataks.