The European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) is a Nearctic element in the African fauna and thought to have invaded North Africa from the Iberian Peninsula. All North African populations are currently identified with the subspecies E. o. occidentalis. However, a nearly range-wide sampling in North Africa used for analyses of mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA provides evidence that only Moroccan populations belong to this taxon, while eastern Algerian and Tunisian pond turtles represent an undescribed distinct subspecies. These two taxa are most closely related to E. o. galloitalica with a native distribution along the Mediterranean coast of northern Spain through southern France to western and southern Italy. This group is sister to a clade comprising several mitochondrial lineages and subspecies of E. orbicularis from Central and Eastern Europe plus Asia, and the successive sisters are E. o. hellenica and E. trinacris. Our results suggest that E. orbicularis has been present in North Africa longer than on the Iberian Peninsula and that after an initial invasion of North Africa by pond turtles from an unknown European source region, there was a phase of diversification in North Africa, followed by a later re-invasion of Europe by one of the African lineages. The differentiation of pond turtles in North Africa parallels a general phylogeographic paradigm in amphibians and reptiles, with deeply divergent lineages in the western and eastern Maghreb. Acknowledging their genetic similarity, we propose to synonymize the previously recognized Iberian subspecies E. o. fritzjuergenobsti with E. o. occidentalis sensu stricto. The seriously imperiled Moroccan populations of E. o. occidentalis represent two Management Units different in mitochondrial haplotypes and microsatellite markers. The conservation status of eastern Algerian pond turtles is unclear, while Tunisian populations are endangered. Considering that Algerian and Tunisian pond turtles represent an endemic taxon, their situation throughout the historical range should be surveyed to establish a basis for conservation measures.
Journal: Organisms Diversity & Evolution