Testing putative African tropical forest refugia using chloroplast and nuclear DNA phylogeography

Andrew J. Lowe, David Harris, Eleanor Dormontt, Ian K. Dawson

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39 Citations (Scopus)


The location and definition of Pleistocene refugia for tropical forest assemblages remains controversial. Phylogeographic methods have been used successfully in temperate ecosystems to locate past forest refugia using genetic data that coincide with pollen core evidence, and in some cases provide the sole basis for their location. Here we present molecular phylogeographic data from nuclear and chloroplast loci for the forest tree Irvingia gabonensis, across the majority of its natural range, in Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon. It is the first detailed phylogeographic study to posit the location of tropical forest refugia across this region of Africa. Using the same method of restriction fragment length polymorphism screening, 17 alleles were identified across five anonymous nuclear loci and two haplotypes at a single chloroplast locus. Analysis based on nuclear variation identified two genetically diverse, differentiated allelic clusters within the species range, one in southern Nigeria/western Cameroon and the other in southwestern Cameroon. Molecular data are consistent with a historical genetic contraction and bottleneck into these regions in the Pleistocene and/or Holocene, which has been followed by subsequent expansion. Both genetic refugia are located within areas previously suggested as forest refugia from biogeographic studies, supported by available pollen core data, and occur either side of the Sanaga River, a notable biogeographic divide for mammals (particularly primates). Other putative refugia in Gabon do not appear to have acted as genetic refugia for I. gabonensis, and Gabon was most likely recolonised from the SW Cameroon refugial source. In this study, nuclear loci were able to highlight significant phylogeographic structure across the range of a tropical African tree, whereas chloroplast analysis gave a much more limited picture. With the increased availability of sequence data for non-model species, the de novo development and further application of nuclear loci is strongly recommended for phylogeographic studies of plants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-58
Number of pages9
JournalTropical Plant Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPrint publication - 30 Apr 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Africa
  • Chloroplast loci
  • Nuclear variation
  • Phylogeography
  • Rainforest
  • Refugia


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