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Open Access Research article

Unveiling an ancient biological invasion: molecular analysis of an old European alien, the crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata)

Emiliano Trucchi* and Valerio Sbordoni

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, Tor Vergata University, 00133 Rome, Italy

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:109  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-109

Published: 18 May 2009



Biological invasions can be considered one of the main threats to biodiversity, and the recognition of common ecological and evolutionary features among invaders can help developing a predictive framework to control further invasions. In particular, the analysis of successful invasive species and of their autochthonous source populations by means of genetic, phylogeographic and demographic tools can provide novel insights into the study of biological invasion patterns. Today, long-term dynamics of biological invasions are still poorly understood and need further investigations. Moreover, distribution and molecular data on native populations could contribute to the recognition of common evolutionary features of successful aliens.


We analyzed 2,195 mitochondrial base pairs, including Cytochrome b, Control Region and rRNA 12S, in 161 Italian and 27 African specimens and assessed the ancient invasive origin of Italian crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata) populations from Tunisia. Molecular coalescent-based Bayesian analyses proposed the Roman Age as a putative timeframe of introduction and suggested a retention of genetic diversity during the early phases of colonization. The characterization of the native African genetic background revealed the existence of two differentiated clades: a Mediterranean group and a Sub-Saharan one. Both standard population genetic and advanced molecular demography tools (Bayesian Skyline Plot) did not evidence a clear genetic signature of the expected increase in population size after introduction. Along with the genetic diversity retention during the bottlenecked steps of introduction, this finding could be better described by hypothesizing a multi-invasion event.


Evidences of the ancient anthropogenic invasive origin of the Italian Hystrix cristata populations were clearly shown and the native African genetic background was preliminary described. A more complex pattern than a simple demographic exponential growth from a single propagule seems to have characterized this long-term invasion.