Slow worm, Anguis fragilis (Reptilia: Anguidae) as a species complex: Genetic structure reveals deep divergences.
Phylogenetic relationships of the Western Palearctic legless lizard genus Anguis were inferred based on a fragment of mitochondrial DNA and two nuclear protein-coding loci, C-mos and PRLR. A. cephallonica from the Peloponnese was confirmed as a valid species. It is the sister taxon to a clade comprising all other evolutionary lineages, which were shown to represent three distinct species: (1) A. fragilis sensu stricto occurring in Western and Central Europe, the north-western Balkans, with possibly isolated populations in the eastern Balkans, and presumably also in western Scandinavia and Italy; (2) A. colchica distributed from the eastern Czech Republic and the Baltic region eastward to northern Iran, presumably also in eastern Scandinavia, and the north-eastern Balkans; (3) A. graeca restricted to the southern Balkans, and partially sympatric with A. cephallonica. According to the more variable mitochondrial marker, A. graeca appears to be the sister species to A. colchica, and these taxa together form a sister clade to A. fragilis, whereas the less variable nuclear markers show A. colchica to be closer to A. fragilis. The C-mos gene has not provided substantial variation within this species complex, while the PRLR gene, which was used for the first time in phylogeographic study in a reptile, distinguished all species successfully. Intra-specific differentiation of A. colchica is discussed, and subspecific status of the Caucasian and Caspian populations is proposed. The uncovered genetic differences should be taken into account in all future biogeographical, morphological and ecological studies, as well as in conservation.