BACKGROUND: Pleistocene glaciations had considerable impact on phylogeographic patterns within and among closely related species of many vertebrates. Compared to Europe and North America, research on the phylogeography of vertebrates in East Asia, particularly in China, remains limited. The black-spotted frog (Pelophylax nigromaculata) is a widespread species in East Asia. The wide distribution of this species in China makes it an ideal model for the study of palaeoclimatic effects on vertebrates in East Asia. Our previous studies of P. nigromaculata revealed significant subdivisions between the northeast China populations and populations in other regions of the mainland. In the present study, we aim to see whether the deepest splits among lineages and perhaps subsequent genealogical divisions are temporally consistent with a Pleistocene origin and whether clade geographic distributions, with insight into expansion patterns, are similarly spatially consistent with this model. RESULTS: Using 1143 nucleotides of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene from 262 individuals sampled from 28 localities, two main clades (clade A and clade B) differing by c. 7.72% sequence divergence were defined from parsimony analyses. The corresponding timing of lineage divergence, 0.92 Mya, indicates a most likely Pleistocene split. The A clade is further subdivided into two sub-clades, A1 and A2 with 1.22% sequence divergence. Nested clade phylogeographical and population demographic analyses suggested that the current distribution of this frog species was the result of range expansion from two independent refugia during the last interglacial period. We discovered a population within which haplotype lineages A and B of P. nigromaculata coexist in the Dongliao area of China by nucleotide sequences, PCR-RFLP and ISSR (inter simple sequence repeat) patterns. The ISSR result in particular supported divergence between the mitochondrial clades A and B and implied introgressive gene flow between the two divergent lineages. CONCLUSION: Nested clade phylogeographical and population demographic analyses indicate that the current distribution of P. nigromaculata is the result of range expansion from two independent refugia during the last interglacial period in late Pleistocene. One refugium was in east China and the lower elevations of south-western plateau. The distribution of the other mitochondrial clade is consistent with the presence of a refugium in the Korean Peninsula. The gene flow as detected by ISSR markers suggests a range expansion of the two refugia and a secondary contact between the two highly divergent lineages in the Dongliao (DL) area of northeast China.
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