Molecular data reveal isolation by distance and past population expansion for the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa C.F. Gaertn) in West Africa


Jean-Marc Bouvet, Fax: +33 467 593 728; E-mail:


While the genetic structure of many tree species in temperate, American and Asian regions is largely explained by climatic oscillations and subsequent habitat contractions and expansions, little is known about Africa. We investigated the genetic diversity and structure of shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa,) in Western Africa, an economically important tree species in the Sudano-Sahelian zone. Eleven nuclear microsatellites (nuc) were used to genotype 673 trees selected in 38 populations. They revealed moderate to high within-population diversity: allelic richness ranged from Rnuc = 3.99 to 5.63. This diversity was evenly distributed across West Africa. Populations were weakly differentiated (FSTnuc = 0.085; P < 0.0001) and a pattern of isolation by distance was noted. No phylogeographic signal could be detected across the studied sample. Additionally, two chloroplast microsatellite loci, leading to 11 chlorotypes, were used to analyse a sub-set of 370 individuals. Some variation in chloroplast allelic richness among populations could be detected (Rcp = 0.00 to 4.36), but these differences were not significant. No trend with latitude and longitude were observed. Differentiation was marked (GSTcp = 0.553; P < 0.0001), but without a significant phylogeographical signal. Population expansion was detected considering the total population using approximate Bayesian computation (nuclear microsatellites) and mismatch distribution (chloroplast microsatellites) methods. This expansion signal and the isolation by distance pattern could be linked to the past climatic conditions in West Africa during the Pleistocene and Holocene which should have been favourable to shea tree development. In addition, human activities through agroforestry and domestication (started 10 000 bp) have probably enhanced gene flow and population expansion.