Taming the late Quaternary phylogeography of the Eurasiatic wild ass through ancient and modern DNA
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Taxonomic over-splitting of extinct or endangered taxa, due to an incomplete knowledge of both skeletal morphological variability and the geographical ranges of past populations, continues to confuse the link between isolated extant populations and their ancestors. This is particularly problematic with the genus Equus. To more reliably determine the evolution and phylogeographic history of the endangered Asiatic wild ass, we studied the genetic diversity and inter-relationships of both extinct and extant populations over the last 100,000 years, including samples throughout its previous range from Western Europe to Southwest and East Asia. Using 229 bp of the mitochondrial hypervariable region, an approach which allowed the inclusion of information from extremely poorly preserved ancient samples, we classify all non-African wild asses into eleven clades that show a clear phylogeographic structure revealing their phylogenetic history. This study places the extinct European wild ass, E. hydruntinus, the phylogeny of which has been debated since the end of the 19th century, into its phylogenetic context within the Asiatic wild asses and reveals recent mitochondrial introgression between populations currently regarded as separate species. The phylogeographic organization of clades resulting from these efforts can be used not only to improve future taxonomic determination of a poorly characterized group of equids, but also to identify historic ranges, interbreeding events between various populations, and the impact of ancient climatic changes. In addition, appropriately placing extant relict populations into a broader phylogeographic and genetic context can better inform ongoing conservation strategies for this highly-endangered species.