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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Mitochondrial lineage sorting in action – historical biogeography of the Hyles euphorbiae complex (Sphingidae, Lepidoptera) in Italy

Michael B Mende12* and Anna K Hundsdoerfer12

Author Affiliations

1 Museum für Tierkunde, Senckenberg Naturhistorische Sammlungen Dresden, Königsbrücker Landstr. 159, Dresden, 01109, Germany

2 Biodiversität und Klima Forschungszentrum (BiK-F), Senckenberganlage 25, Frankfurt am Main, 60325, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:83  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-83

Published: 18 April 2013



Mitochondrial genes are among the most commonly used markers in studies of species’ phylogeography and to draw conclusions about taxonomy. The Hyles euphorbiae complex (HEC) comprises six distinct mitochondrial lineages in the Mediterranean region, of which one exhibits a cryptic disjunct distribution. The predominant mitochondrial lineage in most of Europe, euphorbiae, is also present on Malta; however, it is nowadays strangely absent from Southern Italy and Sicily, where it is replaced by 'italica'. A separate biological entity in Italy is further corroborated by larval colour patterns with a congruent, confined suture zone along the Northern Apennines. By means of historic DNA extracted from museum specimens, we aimed to investigate the evolution of the mitochondrial demographic structure of the HEC in Italy and Malta throughout the Twentieth Century.


At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the European mainland lineages were also present at a moderate frequency in Southern Italy and Sicily. The proportion of 'italica' then steadily increased in this area from below 60 percent to near fixation in about 120 years. Thus, geographical sorting of mitochondrial lineages in the HEC was not as complete then as the current demography suggests. The pattern of an integral 'italica' core region and a disjunct euphorbiae distribution evolved very recently. To explain these strong demographic changes, we propose genetic drift due to anthropogenic habitat loss and fragmentation in combination with an impact from recent climate warming that favoured the spreading of the potentially better adapted 'italica' populations.


The pattern of geographically separated mitochondrial lineages is commonly interpreted as representing long term separated entities. However, our results indicate that such a pattern can emerge surprisingly quickly, even in a widespread and rather common taxon. We thus caution against drawing hasty taxonomic conclusions from biogeographical patterns of mitochondrial markers derived from modern sampling alone.

Historic DNA; Ancient DNA sensu lato; Natural history collections; mtDNA; Phylogeography; Incomplete lineage sorting; Genetic drift; Climate change