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Genetic variation in brown trout Salmo trutta across the Danube, Rhine, and Elbe headwaters: a failure of the phylogeographic paradigm?

Estelle Lerceteau-Köhler13, Ulrich Schliewen2, Theodora Kopun14 and Steven Weiss1*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Zoology, Karl-Franzens University Graz, Universitätsplatz 2, A-8010 Graz Austria

2 Department of Ichthyology, Bavarian State Collection of Zoology (ZSM), Münchhausenstr. 21, D-81247, München Germany

3 Department of Plant Biology and Forest Genetics,Uppsala BioCenter, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Box 7080, S-750 07 Uppsala Sweden

4 Institute of Plant Sciences, Karl-Franzens University Graz, Schubertstraße 51, A-8010 Graz Austria

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:176  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-176

Published: 26 August 2013



Brown trout Salmo trutta have been described in terms of five major mtDNA lineages, four of which correspond to major ocean basins, and one, according to some authors, to a distinct taxon, marbled trout Salmo marmoratus. The Atlantic and Danubian lineages of brown trout meet in a poorly documented contact zone in Central Europe. The natural versus human mediated origin of the Atlantic lineage in the upper Danube is a question of both theoretical and practical importance with respect to conservation management. We provide a comprehensive population genetic analysis of brown trout in the region with the aim of evaluating the geographic distribution and genetic integrity of these two lineages in and around their contact zone.


Genetic screening of 114 populations of brown trout across the Danube/Rhine/Elbe catchments revealed a counter-intuitive phylogeographic structure with near fixation of the Atlantic lineage in the sampled portions of the Bavarian Danube. Along the Austrian Danube, phylogeographic informative markers revealed increasing percentages of Danube-specific alleles with downstream distance. Pure Danube lineage populations were restricted to peri-alpine isolates within previously glaciated regions. Both empirical data and simulated hybrid comparisons support that trout in non-glaciated regions north and northeast of the Alps have an admixed origin largely based on natural colonization. In contrast, the presence of Atlantic basin alleles south and southeast of the Alps stems from hatchery introductions and subsequent introgression. Despite extensive stocking of the Atlantic lineage, little evidence of first generation stocked fish or F1 hybrids were found implying that admixture has been established over time.


A purely phylogeographic paradigm fails to describe the distribution of genetic lineages of Salmo in Central Europe. The distribution pattern of the Atlantic and Danube lineages is extremely difficult to explain without invoking very strong biological mechanisms.

The peri-alpine distribution of relict populations of pure Danubian lineage brown trout implies that they colonized headwater river courses post-glacially ahead of the expansion of the Atlantic lineage. The recognition of natural as opposed to anthropogenic introgression of the Atlantic lineage into Danubian gene pools is of fundamental importance to management strategies.

Paleo-hydrology; Phylogeography; Alpine; Austria; Bavaria; mtDNA; Microsatellites; LDH-C1; Stocking; Conservation