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Genetic diversity, evolutionary history and implications for conservation of the lion (Panthera leo) in West and Central Africa

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Abstract Aim 

In recent decades there has been a marked decline in the numbers of African lions (Panthera leo), especially in West Africa where the species is regionally endangered. Based on the climatological history of western Africa, we hypothesize that West and Central African lions have a unique evolutionary history, which is reflected by their genetic makeup. Location 

Sub-Saharan Africa and India, with special focus on West and Central Africa. Method 

In this study 126 samples, throughout the lion’s complete geographic range, were subjected to phylogenetic analyses. DNA sequences of a mitochondrial region, containing cytochrome b, tRNAPro, tRNAThr and the left part of the control region, were analysed. Results 

Bayesian, maximum likelihood and maximum parsimony analyses consistently showed a distinction between lions from West and Central Africa and lions from southern and East Africa. West and Central African lions are more closely related to Asiatic lions than to the southern and East African lions. This can be explained by a Pleistocene extinction and subsequent recolonization of West Africa from refugia in the Middle East. This is further supported by the fact that the West and Central African clade shows relatively little genetic diversity and is therefore thought to be an evolutionarily young clade. Main conclusions 

The taxonomic division between an African and an Asian subspecies does not fully reflect the overall genetic diversity within lions. In order to conserve genetic diversity within the species, genetically distinct lineages should be prioritized. Understanding the geographic pattern of genetic diversity is key to developing conservation strategies, both for in situ management and for breeding of captive stocks.
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Keywords: Central Africa; Panthera leo; West Africa; evolutionary history; genetic diversity; lion; phylogenetics; phylogeography

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), Leiden University, PO Box 9518, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands 2: Resource Ecology Group, Wageningen University, Droevendaalsesteeg 3a, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands 3: Institute of Biology Leiden (IBL), Leiden University, PO Box 9505, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands 4: Hillsdale College, 33 East College Street, Hillsdale, Michigan, MI 49242, USA and National Zoological Gardens, Pretoria, South Africa 5: Geo Institute, Catholic University Leuven, Celestijnenlaan 200 E, B-3001 Heverlee, Belgium 6: Department of Nature Conservation, Tshwane University of Technology, Private Bag X680, Pretoria 0001, Pretoria, South Africa 7: Evolutionary Biology Group, University of Antwerp, Groenenborgerlaan 171, B-2020 Antwerp, Belgium 8: Dr van Haeringen Laboratorium, PO Box 408, 6700 AK Wageningen, The Netherlands

Publication date: 2011-07-01

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