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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Historical biogeography of the land snail Cornu aspersum: a new scenario inferred from haplotype distribution in the Western Mediterranean basin

Annie Guiller1* and Luc Madec2

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratoire de Parasitologie Pharmaceutique (CNRS UMR 6553), Faculté des Sciences Pharmaceutiques et Biologiques, 35043 Rennes, France

2 CNRS UMR 6553, Campus de Beaulieu, 35042 Rennes, France

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-18

Published: 20 January 2010



Despite its key location between the rest of the continent and Europe, research on the phylogeography of north African species remains very limited compared to European and North American taxa. The Mediterranean land mollusc Cornu aspersum (= Helix aspersa) is part of the few species widely sampled in north Africa for biogeographical analysis. It then provides an excellent biological model to understand phylogeographical patterns across the Mediterranean basin, and to evaluate hypotheses of population differentiation. We investigated here the phylogeography of this land snail to reassess the evolutionary scenario we previously considered for explaining its scattered distribution in the western Mediterranean, and to help to resolve the question of the direction of its range expansion (from north Africa to Europe or vice versa). By analysing simultaneously individuals from 73 sites sampled in its putative native range, the present work provides the first broad-scale screening of mitochondrial variation (cyt b and 16S rRNA genes) of C. aspersum.


Phylogeographical structure mirrored previous patterns inferred from anatomy and nuclear data, since all haplotypes could be ascribed to a B (West) or a C (East) lineage. Alternative migration models tested confirmed that C. aspersum most likely spread from north Africa to Europe. In addition to Kabylia in Algeria, which would have been successively a centre of dispersal and a zone of secondary contacts, we identified an area in Galicia where genetically distinct west and east type populations would have regained contact.


Vicariant and dispersal processes are reviewed and discussed in the light of signatures left in the geographical distribution of the genetic variation. In referring to Mediterranean taxa which show similar phylogeographical patterns, we proposed a parsimonious scenario to account for the "east-west" genetic splitting and the northward expansion of the western (B) clade which roughly involves (i) the dispersal of ancestral (eastern) types through Oligocene terranes in the Western Mediterranean (ii) the Tell Atlas orogenesis as gene flow barrier between future west and east populations, (iii) the impact of recurrent climatic fluctuations from mid-Pliocene to the last ice age, (iv) the loss of the eastern lineage during Pleistocene northwards expansion phases.