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Open Access Research article

Unexpected relationships of substructured populations in Chinese Locusta migratoria

De-Xing Zhang12*, Lu-Na Yan14, Ya-Jie Ji1, Godfrey M Hewitt3 and Zu-Shi Huang1

Author Affiliations

1 State Key Laboratory of Integrated Management of Pest Insects and Rodents, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, PR China

2 Center for Computational and Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, PR China

3 School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

4 Current address: College of Biological Science and Engineering, Hebei University of Science and Technology, Shijiazhuang, Hebei 050018, PR China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:144  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-144

Published: 28 June 2009



Highly migratory species are usually expected to have minimal population substructure because strong gene flow has the effect of homogenizing genetic variation over geographical populations, counteracting random drift, selection and mutation. The migratory locust Locusta migratoria belongs to a monotypic genus, and is an infamous pest insect with exceptional migratory ability – with dispersal documented over a thousand kilometers. Its distributional area is greater than that of any other locust or grasshopper, occurring in practically all the temperate and tropical regions of the eastern hemisphere. Consequently, minimal population substructuring is expected. However, in marked contrast to its high dispersal ability, three geographical subspecies have been distinguished in China, with more than nine being biologically and morphologically identified in the world. Such subspecies status has been under considerable debate.


By multilocus microsatellite genotyping analysis, we provide ample genetic evidence for strong population substructure in this highly migratory insect that conforms to geography. More importantly, our genetic data identified an unexpected cryptic subdivision and demonstrated a strong affiliation of the East China locusts to those in Northwest/Northern China. The migratory locusts in China formed three distinct groups, viz. (1) the Tibetan group, comprising locusts from Tibet and nearby West China high mountain regions; this is congruent with the previously recognized Tibetan subspecies, L. m. tibetensis; (2) the South China group, containing locusts from the Hainan islands; this corresponds to the Southeast Asia oriental tropical subspecies L. m. manilensis; (3) the North China group, including locusts from the Northwest and Northern China (the Asiatic subspecies L. m. migratoria), Central China and Eastern China regions. Therefore, the traditional concept on Locusta subspecies status established from Uvarov in 1930s needs to be revised. The three groups of locusts probably have separate evolutionary histories that were most likely linked to Quaternary glaciations events, and derived from different ancestral refugial populations following postglacial expansions.


The migratory locust populations in China have differentiated into three genetically distinct groups despite high dispersal capability. While this clarified long-standing suspicions on the subspecific diversification of this species in China, it also revealed that the locusts in the vast area of East China are not the oriental subspecies but the Asiatic subspecies, an unexpected substructuring pattern. The distribution pattern of the three locust groups in China may be primarily defined by adaptive differentiation coupled to Quaternary glaciations events. Our results are of general significance both for locust research and for phylogeographical study of flora and fauna in China, illustrating the potential importance of phylogeographical history in shaping the divergence and distribution patterns of widespread species with strong dispersal ability.