The European mink (Mustela lutreola, L. 1761) is a critically endangered mustelid, which inhabits several main river drainages in Europe. Here, we assess the genetic variation of existing populations of this species, including new sampling sites and additional molecular markers (newly developed microsatellite loci specific to European mink) as compared to previous studies. Probabilistic analyses were used to examine genetic structure within and between existing populations, and to infer phylogeographic processes and past demography.
According to both mitochondrial and nuclear microsatellite markers, Northeastern (Russia, Estonia and Belarus) and Southeastern (Romania) European populations showed the highest intraspecific diversity. In contrast, Western European (France and Spain) populations were the least polymorphic, featuring a unique mitochondrial DNA haplotype. The high differentiation values detected between Eastern and Western European populations could be the result of genetic drift in the latter due to population isolation and reduction. Genetic differences among populations were further supported by Bayesian clustering and two main groups were confirmed (Eastern vs. Western Europe) along with two contained subgroups at a more local scale (Northeastern vs. Southeastern Europe; France vs. Spain).
Genetic data and performed analyses support a historical scenario of stable European mink populations, not affected by Quaternary climate oscillations in the Late Pleistocene, and posterior expansion events following river connections in both North- and Southeastern European populations. This suggests an eastern refuge during glacial maxima (as already proposed for boreal and continental species). In contrast, Western Europe was colonised more recently following either natural expansions or putative human introductions. Low levels of genetic diversity observed within each studied population suggest recent bottleneck events and stress the urgent need for conservation measures to counteract the demographic decline experienced by the European mink.