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Following the rivers: historical reconstruction of California voles Microtus californicus (Rodentia: Cricetidae) in the deserts of eastern California

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The California vole, Microtus californicus, restricted to habitat patches where water is available nearly year-round, is a remnant of the mesic history of the southern Great Basin and Mojave deserts of eastern California. The history of voles in this region is a model for species-edge population dynamics through periods of climatic change. We sampled voles from the eastern deserts of California and examined variation in the mitochondrial cytb gene, three nuclear intron regions, and across 12 nuclear microsatellite markers. Samples are allocated to two mitochondrial clades: one associated with southern California and the other with central and northern California. The limited mtDNA structure largely recovers the geographical distribution, replicated by both nuclear introns and microsatellites. The most remote population, Microtus californicus scirpensis at Tecopa near Death Valley, was the most distinct. This population shares microsatellite alleles with both mtDNA clades, and both its northern clade nuclear introns and southern clade mtDNA sequences support a hybrid origin for this endangered population. The overall patterns support two major invasions into the desert through an ancient system of riparian corridors along streams and lake margins during the latter part of the Pleistocene followed by local in situ divergence subsequent to late Pleistocene and Holocene drying events. Changes in current water resource use could easily remove California voles from parts of the desert landscape.

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