• dispersal;
  • gene flow;
  • genetic markers;
  • incipient speciation;
  • isolation-by-distance;
  • pondweed;
  • population structure;
  • Potamogeton pectinatus


Habitat configuration is expected to have a major influence on genetic exchange and evolutionary divergence among populations. Aquatic organisms occur in two fundamentally different habitat types, the sea and freshwater lakes, making them excellent models to study the contrasting effects of continuity vs. isolation on genetic divergence. We compared the divergence in post-glacial populations of a cosmopolitan aquatic plant, the pondweed Potamogeton pectinatus that simultaneously occurs in freshwater lakes and coastal marine sites. Relative levels of gene flow were inferred in 12 lake and 14 Baltic Sea populations in northern Germany using nine highly polymorphic microsatellite markers developed for P. pectinatus. We found highly significant isolation-by-distance in both habitat types (P < 0.001). Genetic differentiation increased approximately 2.5-times faster among freshwater populations compared with those from the Baltic Sea. As different levels of genetic drift or population history cannot explain these differences, higher population connectivity in the sea relative to freshwater populations is the most likely source of contrasting evolutionary divergence. These findings are consistent with the notion that freshwater angiosperms are more conducive to allopatric speciation than their life-history counterparts in the sea, the relative species poor seagrasses. Surprisingly, population pairs from different habitat types revealed almost maximal genetic divergence expected for complete reproductive isolation, regardless of their respective geographical distance. Hence, the barrier to gene flow between lake and sea habitat types cannot be due to dispersal limitation. We may thus have identified a case of rapid incipient speciation in post-glacial populations of a widespread aquatic plant.