Open Access Research article

Phylogeography of the Patagonian otter Lontra provocax: adaptive divergence to marine habitat or signature of southern glacial refugia?

Juliana A Vianna123*, Gonzalo Medina-Vogel1, Claudio Chehébar4, Walter Sielfeld5, Carlos Olavarría6 and Sylvain Faugeron2

Author affiliations

1 Departamento de Ecología y Biodiversidad, Facultad de Ecología y Recursos Naturales, Universidad Andrés Bello, Republica 440, Santiago, Chile

2 Center for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity, Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Alameda 340, Santiago, Chile

3 Departamento de Ecosistemas y Medio Ambiente, Facultad de Agronomía e Ingeniería Forestal, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Vicuña MacKenna 4860, Santiago, Chile

4 Delegación Regional Patagonia, Administración de Parques Nacionales, Vice Almirante O'Connor 1188, 8400, San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

5 Universidad Arturo Prat, Departamento de Ciencias del Mar, Av. Arturo Prat 2120, Iquique, Chile

6 Fundación CEQUA, Plaza Muñoz Gamero 1055, Punta Arenas, Chile

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:53  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-53

Published: 28 February 2011



A number of studies have described the extension of ice cover in western Patagonia during the Last Glacial Maximum, providing evidence of a complete cover of terrestrial habitat from 41°S to 56°S and two main refugia, one in south-eastern Tierra del Fuego and the other north of the Chiloé Island. However, recent evidence of high genetic diversity in Patagonian river species suggests the existence of aquatic refugia in this region. Here, we further test this hypothesis based on phylogeographic inferences from a semi-aquatic species that is a top predator of river and marine fauna, the huillín or Southern river otter (Lontra provocax).


We examined mtDNA sequences of the control region, ND5 and Cytochrome-b (2151 bp in total) in 75 samples of L. provocax from 21 locations in river and marine habitats. Phylogenetic analysis illustrates two main divergent clades for L. provocax in continental freshwater habitat. A highly diverse clade was represented by haplotypes from the marine habitat of the Southern Fjords and Channels (SFC) region (43°38' to 53°08'S), whereas only one of these haplotypes was paraphyletic and associated with northern river haplotypes.


Our data support the hypothesis of the persistence of L. provocax in western Patagonia, south of the ice sheet limit, during last glacial maximum (41°S latitude). This limit also corresponds to a strong environmental change, which might have spurred L. provocax differentiation between the two environments.