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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Demographic history, genetic structure and gene flow in a steppe-associated raptor species

Jesus T Garcia1*, Fernando Alda1, Julien Terraube12, François Mougeot3, Audrey Sternalski14, Vincent Bretagnolle4 and Beatriz Arroyo1

Author affiliations

1 Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos (IREC) (CSIC-UCLM-JCCM). Ronda de Toledo s/n, E-13005 Ciudad Real, Spain

2 Natural Research Ltd, Banchory Business Centre, Burn O'Bennie Road, Banchory, AB31 5ZU, UK

3 Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas (EEZA-CSIC), Ctra. de Sacramento s/n, La Cañada de San Urbano, 04120 Almería, Spain

4 CEBC-CNRS, UPR1934, 79360 Beauvoir sur Niort, France

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:333  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-333

Published: 17 November 2011

Abstract

Background

Environmental preferences and past climatic changes may determine the length of time during which a species range has contracted or expanded from refugia, thereby influencing levels of genetic diversification. Connectivity among populations of steppe-associated taxa might have been maximal during the long glacial periods, and interrupted only during the shorter interglacial phases, potentially resulting in low levels of genetic differentiation among populations. We investigated this hypothesis by exploring patterns of genetic diversity, past demography and gene flow in a raptor species characteristic of steppes, the Montagu's harrier (Circus pygargus), using mitochondrial DNA data from 13 breeding populations and two wintering populations.

Results

Consistent with our hypothesis, Montagu's harrier has relatively low genetic variation at the mitochondrial DNA. The highest levels of genetic diversity were found in coastal Spain, France and central Asia. These areas, which were open landscapes during the Holocene, may have acted as refugia when most of the European continent was covered by forests. We found significant genetic differentiation between two population groups, at the SW and NE parts of the species' range. Two events of past population growth were detected, and occurred ca. 7500-5500 and ca. 3500-1000 years BP in the SW and NE part of the range respectively. These events were likely associated with vegetation shifts caused by climate and human-induced changes during the Holocene.

Conclusions

The relative genetic homogeneity observed across populations of this steppe raptor may be explained by a short isolation time, relatively recent population expansions and a relaxed philopatry. We highlight the importance of considering the consequence of isolation and colonization processes in order to better understand the evolutionary history of steppe species.