Background: Debated aspects in speciation research concern the amount of gene flow between incipient species under secondary contact and the modes by which post-zygotic isolation accumulates. Secondary contact zones of allopatric lineages, involving varying levels of divergence, provide natural settings for comparative studies, for which the Aegean (Eastern Mediterranean) geography offers unique scenarios. In Palearctic green toads (Bufo viridis subgroup or Bufotes), Plio-Pleistocene (~ 2.6 Mya) diverged species show a sharp transition without contemporary gene flow, while younger lineages, diverged in the Lower-Pleistocene (~ 1.9 Mya), admix over tens of kilometers. Here, we conducted a fine-scale multilocus phylogeographic analysis of continental and insular green toads from the Aegean, where a third pair of taxa, involving Mid-Pleistocene diverged (~ 1.5 Mya) mitochondrial lineages, earlier tentatively named viridis and variabilis, (co-)occurs.
Results: We discovered a new lineage, endemic to Naxos (Central Cyclades), while coastal islands and Crete feature weak genetic differentiation from the continent. In continental Greece, both lineages, viridis and variabilis, form a hybrid swarm, involving massive mitochondrial and nuclear admixture over hundreds of kilometers, without obvious selection against hybrids.
Conclusions: The genetic signatures of insular Aegean toads appear governed by bathymetry and Quaternary sea level changes, resulting in long-term isolation (Central Cyclades: Naxos) and recent land-bridges (coastal islands). Conversely, Crete has been isolated since the end of the Messinian salinity crisis (5.3 My) and Cretan populations thus likely result from human-mediated colonization, at least since Antiquity, from Peloponnese and Anatolia. Comparisons of green toad hybrid zones support the idea that post-zygotic hybrid incompatibilities accumulate gradually over the genome. In this radiation, only one million years of divergence separate a scenario of complete reproductive isolation, from a secondary contact resulting in near panmixia.