Nonreceding hare lines: genetic continuity since the Late Pleistocene in European mountain hares (Lepus timidus)
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Authors: Smith, S., Stewart, J.R. et al.
Journal: Biological Journal of the Linnean Society
© 2016 The Linnean Society of London. Throughout time, climate changes have caused substantial rearrangements of habitats which have alternately promoted and disfavoured different types of taxa. At first glance, the mountain hare (Lepus timidus) shows the typical hallmarks of a cold-adapted species that has retreated to refugia since the onset of the current Holocene interglacial. In contrary to expectations, however, the species has a high contemporary genetic diversity with no clear differentiation between geographically isolated populations. In order to clarify the phylogeographic history of European mountain hares, we here analysed ancient DNA from the glacial populations that inhabited the previous midlatitude European tundra region. Our results reveal that the Ice Age hares had similar levels of genetic variation and lack of geographic structure as observed today, and the ancient samples were intermingled with modern individuals throughout the reconstructed evolutionary tree. This suggests a temporal genetic continuity in Europe, where the mountain hares were able to keep pace with the rapid changes at the last glacial/interglacial transition and successfully track their shifting habitat to northern and alpine regions. Further, the temporal demographic analyses showed that the species’ population size in Europe appears to have been tightly linked with palaeoclimatic fluctuations, with increases and declines occurring during periods of global cooling and warming, respectively. Taken together, our results suggest that neither habitat shifts nor demographic fluctuations have had any substantial impact on the genetic diversity of European mountain hares. This remarkable resilience, which contrasts to a majority of previously investigated coldadapted species, is likely due to its generalist nature that makes it less vulnerable to environmental changes.