Numerous studies addressing the impact of habitat fragmentation on genetic diversity have been performed. In this study, we analyze the effects of a seemingly nonpermeable matrix on the population structure of the forest-dwelling butterfly Pararge aegeria in geographically isolated oases at the northern margin of the Sahara desert using microsatellites, morphological characters, and species distribution modeling. Results from all analyses are mostly congruent and reveal 1) a split between European and North African populations, 2) rather low divergence between populations from the eastern and western part of North Africa (Morocco vs. Tunisia), 3) a lack of differentiation between the oasis and Atlas Mountain populations, 4) as well as among the oasis populations, and 5) no reduction of genetic variability in oasis populations. However, one exception to this general trend resulted from the analyses of wing shape; wings of butterflies from oases are more elongated compared with those from the other habitats. This pattern of phenotypic divergence may suggest a recent colonization of the oasis habitats by individuals, which might be accompanied by a rather dispersive behavior. Species distribution modeling suggests a fairly recent reexpansion of the species' climatic niche starting in the Holocene at about 6000 before present. The combined results indicate a rather recent colonization of the oases by highly mobile individuals from genetically diverse founder populations. The colonization was likely followed by the expansion and persistence of these founder populations under relatively stable environmental conditions. This, together with low rates of gene flow, likely prevented differentiation of populations via drift and led to the maintenance of high genetic diversity.
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