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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Reproductive isolation, evolutionary distinctiveness and setting conservation priorities: The case of European lake whitefish and the endangered North Sea houting (Coregonus spp.)

Michael M Hansen1*, Dylan J Fraser2, Thomas D Als1 and Karen-Lise D Mensberg1

Author Affiliations

1 Technical University of Denmark, National Institute of Aquatic Resources, Vejlsøvej 39, DK-8600 Silkeborg, Denmark

2 Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 1J1, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:137  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-137

Published: 9 May 2008



Adaptive radiation within fishes of the Coregonus lavaretus complex has created numerous morphs, posing significant challenges for taxonomy and conservation priorities. The highly endangered North Sea houting (C. oxyrhynchus; abbreviated NSH) has been considered a separate species from European lake whitefish (C. lavaretus; abbreviated ELW) due to morphological divergence and adaptation to oceanic salinities. However, its evolutionary and taxonomic status is controversial. We analysed microsatellite DNA polymorphism in nine populations from the Jutland Peninsula and the Baltic Sea, representing NSH (three populations, two of which are reintroduced) and ELW (six populations). The objectives were to: 1) analyse postglacial recolonization of whitefish in the region; 2) assess the evolutionary distinctiveness of NSH, and 3) apply several approaches for defining conservation units towards setting conservation priorities for NSH.


Bayesian cluster analyses of genetic differentiation identified four major groups, corresponding to NSH and three groups of ELW (Western Jutland, Central Jutland, Baltic Sea). Estimates of historical migration rates indicated recolonization in a north-eastern direction, suggesting that all except the Baltic Sea population predominantly represent postglacial recolonization via the ancient Elbe River. Contemporary gene flow has not occurred between NSH and ELW, with a divergence time within the last 4,000 years suggested from coalescence methods. NSH showed interbreeding with ELW when brought into contact by stocking. Thus, reproductive isolation of NSH was not absolute, although possible interbreeding beyond the F1 level could not be resolved.


Fishes of the C. lavaretus complex in the Jutland Peninsula originate from the same recolonization event. NSH has evolved recently and its species status may be questioned due to incomplete reproductive isolation from ELW, but it was shown to merit consideration as an independent conservation unit. Yet, application of several approaches for defining conservation units generated mixed outcomes regarding its conservation priority. Within the total species complex, it remains one among many recently evolved unique forms. Its uniqueness and high conservation priority is more evident at a local geographical scale, where conservation efforts will also benefit populations of a number of other endangered species.