Ancient mitochondrial DNA and the genetic history of Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) in Europe



After centuries of human hunting, the Eurasian beaver Castor fiber had disappeared from most of its original range by the end of the 19th century. The surviving relict populations are characterized by both low genetic diversity and strong phylogeographical structure. However, it remains unclear whether these attributes are the result of a human-induced, late Holocene bottleneck or already existed prior to this reduction in range. To investigate genetic diversity in Eurasian beaver populations during the Holocene, we obtained mitochondrial control region DNA sequences from 48 ancient beaver samples and added 152 modern sequences from GenBank. Phylogeographical analyses of the data indicate a differentiation of European beaver populations into three mitochondrial clades. The two main clades occur in western and eastern Europe, respectively, with an early Holocene contact zone in eastern Europe near a present-day contact zone. A divergent and previously unknown clade of beavers from the Danube Basin survived until at least 6000 years ago, but went extinct during the transition to modern times. Finally, we identify a recent decline in effective population size of Eurasian beavers, with a stronger bottleneck signal in the western than in the eastern clade. Our results suggest that the low genetic diversity and the strong phylogeographical structure in recent beavers are artefacts of human hunting-associated population reductions. While beaver populations have been growing rapidly since the late 19th century, genetic diversity within modern beaver populations remains considerably reduced compared to what was present prior to the period of human hunting and habitat reduction.