The phylogeny and historical demography of small Eurasian vipers of the Vipera ursinii and V. renardi complexes were studied using mitochondrial DNA sequences analysed with Bayesian inference, Maximum Likelihood and Maximum Parsimony approaches, and mismatch distributions. Diversification in the group resulted from an initial dispersion in the later Pliocene - Pleistocene in two directions: north-westwards via the Balkans (V. ursinii complex) and north-eastwards from Asia Minor via the Caucasus (V. renardi complex). An independent, comparatively recent transition occurred from montane habitats to lowland grasslands in different mitochondrial lineages during the Late Pleistocene, when representatives of the both complexes had reached lowland steppes to the north. Effective population size showed clear signs of rapid growth in eastern V. renardi, triggered by colonization of vast lowland steppes, but in western V. ursinii complex grew during the Last Glaciation and experienced stabilization in Holocene. Expansion and population growth in lowland lineages of V. renardi was not strongly affected by Pleistocene climatic oscillations, when cold, dry conditions could have favoured species living in open grasslands. The high diversity of closely related haplotypes in the Caucasus and Tien-Shan could have resulted from repetitive expansion-constriction-isolation events in montane regions during Pleistocene climate fluctuations. The mitochondrial phylogeny pattern conflicts with the current taxonomy.
Keywords: Historical demography; Mitochondrial phylogeny; Pleistocene; Vipera renardi complex; Vipera ursinii complex.
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