The evolutionary history of a mammal species with a highly fragmented range: the phylogeography of the European snow vole


  • Editor: Jean-Nicolas Volff

Riccardo Castiglia, Dipartimento di Biologia Animale e dell'Uomo, Università di Roma ‘la Sapienza’, via A. Borelli 50, 00161 Rome, Italy. Tel: +0039 06 49918122; Fax: +0039 06 4457516


The European snow vole Chionomys nivalis has a patchy distribution restricted to rocky habitats across southern Europe and the Near and Middle East. We carried out a phylogeographic study to provide a biogeographic scenario, based on molecular data, outlining the major processes that determined the current distribution of the species. The samples include 26 snow voles from 14 different populations across the entire species range from Spain to Anatolia and Israel. Nearly complete sequences (1037 bp) of the mitochondrial gene for cytochrome b were sequenced. Relationships among haplotypes were inferred with neighbour-joining, maximum likelihood, maximum parsimony analyses and minimum spanning network. An analysis of mismatch distribution was used to cast light on past demographic expansion. We found 22 different haplotypes that fall into six distinct lineages, all but one is supported by high bootstrap values with all methods. Four lineages are allopatric (Tatra Mts., Iberia, Balkans and Middle East) while divergent haplotypes from two lineages show sympatry in the Alps and the Apennines. The basal relationships of these lineages could not be established by any tree. The mean pairwise genetic distance between lineages ranges from 2.4 to 4.2%. The shape of the mismatch distribution indicated a past expansion event dating back to between 158 000 and 84 000 years ago. These data can be interpreted with the existence of southern glacial refugia (Iberia, Balkans, Middle East and Italy) and one additional northern glacial refugium. The lack of phylogenetic resolution among lineages and the shape of mismatch distribution are indicative of a simultaneous and rapid splitting due to a relatively fast initial expansion of populations. Moreover, the analysis supports the hypothesis of the European origin of C. nivalis and its subsequent eastward dispersion during the Middle Pleistocene.