Climate-driven range-shifts create evolutionary opportunities for allopatric divergence and subsequent contact, leading to genetic structuration and hybrid zones. We investigate how these processes influenced the evolution of a complex of three closely related Cystoseira spp., which are a key component of the Mediterranean-Atlantic seaweed forests that are undergoing population declines. The C. tamariscifolia complex, composed of C. tamariscifolia s.s., C. amentacea and C. mediterranea, have indistinct boundaries and natural hybridization is suspected. Our aims are to (1) infer the genetic structure and diversity of these species throughout their distribution ranges using microsatellite markers to identify ancient versus recent geographical populations, contact zones and reproductive barriers, and (2) hindcast past distributions using niche models to investigate the influence of past range shifts on genetic divergence at multiple spatial scales. Results supported a single, morphologically plastic species the genetic structure of which was incongruent with a priori species assignments. The low diversity and low singularity in northern European populations suggest recent colonization after the LGM. The southern Iberian genetic hotspot most likely results from the role of this area as a climatic refugium or a secondary contact zone between differentiated populations or both. We hypothesize that life-history traits (selfing, low dispersal) and prior colonization effects, rather than reproductive barriers, might explain the observed genetic discontinuities.
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