Evolutionary history and species delimitations: a case study of the hazel dormouse, Muscardinus avellanarius
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Robust identification of species and significant evolutionary units (ESUs) is essential to implement appropriate conservation strategies for endangered species. However, definitions of species or ESUs are numerous and sometimes controversial, which might lead to biased conclusions, with serious consequences for the management of endangered species. The hazel dormouse, an arboreal rodent of conservation concern throughout Europe is an ideal model species to investigate the relevance of species identification for conservation purposes. This species is a member of the Gliridae family, which is protected in Europe and seriously threatened in the northern part of its range. We assessed the extent of genetic subdivision in the hazel dormouse by sequencing one mitochondrial gene (cytb) and two nuclear genes (BFIBR, APOB) and genotyping 10 autosomal microsatellites. These data were analysed using a combination of phylogenetic analyses and species delimitation methods. Multilocus analyses revealed the presence of two genetically distinct lineages (approximately 11 % cytb genetic divergence, no nuclear alleles shared) for the hazel dormouse in Europe, which presumably diverged during the Late Miocene. The phylogenetic patterns suggests that Muscardinus avellanarius populations could be split into two cryptic species respectively distributed in western and central-eastern Europe and Anatolia. However, the comparison of several species definitions and methods estimated the number of species between 1 and 10. Our results revealed the difficulty in choosing and applying an appropriate criterion and markers to identify species and highlight the fact that consensus guidelines are essential for species delimitation in the future. In addition, this study contributes to a better knowledge about the evolutionary history of the species.