North African hares are currently included in cape hares, Lepus capensis sensu lato, a taxon that may be considered a superspecies or a complex of closely related species. The existing molecular data, however, are not unequivocal, with mtDNA control region sequences suggesting a separate species status and nuclear loci (allozymes, microsatellites) revealing conspecificity of L. capensis and L. europaeus. Here, we study sequence variation in the intron 6 (468 bp) of the transferrin nuclear gene, of 105 hares with different coat colour from different regions in Tunisia with respect to genetic diversity and differentiation, as well as their phylogenetic status. Forty-six haplotypes (alleles) were revealed and compared phylogenetically to all available TF haplotypes of various Lepus species retrieved from GenBank. Maximum Likelihood, neighbor joining and median joining network analyses concordantly grouped all currently obtained haplotypes together with haplotypes belonging to six different Chinese hare species and the African scrub hare L. saxatilis. Moreover, two Tunisian haploypes were shared with L. capensis, L timidus, L. sinensis, L. yarkandensis, and L. hainanus from China. These results indicated the evolutionary complexity of the genus Lepus with the mixing of nuclear gene haplotypes resulting from introgressive hybridization or/and shared ancestral polymorphism. We report the presence of shared ancestral polymorphism between North African and Chinese hares. This has not been detected earlier in the mtDNA sequences of the same individuals. Genetic diversity of the TF sequences from the Tunisian populations was relatively high compared to other hare populations. However, genetic differentiation and gene flow analyses (AMOVA, FST, Nm) indicated little divergence with the absence of geographically meaningful phylogroups and lack of clustering with coat colour types. These results confirm the presence of a single hare species in Tunisia, but a sound inference on its phylogenetic position would require additional nuclear markers and numerous geographically meaningful samples from Africa and Eurasia.
Animals Gene Frequency Genetic Variation Genetics, Population Geography Haplotypes Haresclassificationgenetics Phylogeny Polymorphism, Genetic Transferringenetics Tunisia