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Chasing the phantom: biogeography and conservation of Vipera latastei-monticola in the Maghreb (North Africa)

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The Maghreb region (North Africa) constitutes a major component of the Mediterranean Basin biodiversity hotspot. During the last centuries, a consistent human population growth has led to an unprecedented rate of habitat transformation and loss in the region and thus, threatening its biodiversity. The Western Mediterranean viper Vipera latastei-monticola inhabits humid and subhumid areas in the main mountain ranges of the Maghreb, facing such threatening factors; however, its elusive character and rarity hindered data collection for distinct biological purposes. Here, we study the biogeographical patterns and conservation status of the Maghrebian V. latastei-monticola resulting from recent sampling campaigns in Morocco and Tunisia. We update species distribution, and integrate phylogeographic and ecological niche modelling analyses at both species and lineage level to identify suitable areas, and to evaluate the impact of anthropogenic transformation and level of protection of their suitable space. We identified four highly divergent mitochondrial lineages, including a new lineage endemic to the Western High Atlas, with allopatric distributions and restricted to mountain ranges, supporting the role of mountains as past climatic refugia. Despite the remoteness of suitable areas, we report widespread habitat degradation and identify the low effectiveness of the current protected areas system in preserving the species and lineages range. Our study shows the urgent need to apply management actions for the long-term conservation of this vulnerable species and suggests a revaluation of the specific status of V. monticola, as these populations likely represent an ecotype of V. latastei.

Affiliations: 1: 1CIBIO/InBIO, Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Recursos Genéticos da Universidade do Porto. Instituto de Ciências Agrárias de Vairão. R. Padre Armando Quintas 7, 4485-661 Vairão, Portugal ; 2: 2Equipe de Recherche Ecologie, Systématique, Conservation de la Biodiversité, Département de Biologie, Faculté des Sciences de Tétouan, Université Abdelmalek Essaâdi, Morocco

*Corresponding authors; e-mail: ifinesfreitas@hotmail.com; fmartinez-freiria@cibio.up.pt
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2018-04-24
2018-10-19

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