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Keywords:

  • ice ages;
  • parasites;
  • phylogeography;
  • species distribution modelling;
  • Western Palaearctic

Abstract

In the last few years, improved analytical tools and the integration of genetic data with multiple sources of information have shown that temperate species exhibited more complex responses to ice ages than previously thought. In this study, we investigated how Pleistocene climatic changes affected the current distribution and genetic diversity of European populations of the tick Ixodes ricinus, an ectoparasite with high ecological plasticity. We first used mitochondrial and nuclear genetic markers to investigate the phylogeographic structure of the species and its Pleistocene history using coalescent-based methods; then we used species distribution modelling to infer the climatic niche of the species at last glacial maximum; finally, we reviewed the literature on the I. ricinus hosts to identify the locations of their glacial refugia. Our results support the scenario that during the last glacial phase, I. ricinus never experienced a prolonged allopatric divergence in separate glacial refugia, but persisted with interconnected populations across Southern and Central Europe. The generalist behaviour in host choice of I. ricinus would have played a major role in maintaining connections between its populations. Although most of the hosts persisted in separate refugia, from the point of view of I. ricinus, they represented a continuity of ‘bridges’ among populations. Our study highlights the importance of species-specific ecology in affecting responses to Pleistocene glacial–interglacial cycles. Together with other cases in Europe and elsewhere, it contributes to setting new hypotheses on how species with wide ecological plasticity coped with Pleistocene climatic changes.