Distinct and Diverse: Range-Wide Phylogeography Reveals Ancient Lineages and High Genetic Variation in the Endangered Okapi (Okapia johnstoni)
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The okapi is an endangered, evolutionarily distinctive even-toed ungulate classified within the giraffidae family that is endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The okapi is currently under major anthropogenic threat, yet to date nothing is known about its genetic structure and evolutionary history, information important for conservation management given the species' current plight. The distribution of the okapi, being confined to the Congo Basin and yet spanning the Congo River, also makes it an important species for testing general biogeographic hypotheses for Congo Basin fauna, a currently understudied area of research. Here we describe the evolutionary history and genetic structure of okapi, in the context of other African ungulates including the giraffe, and use this information to shed light on the biogeographic history of Congo Basin fauna in general. Using nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence analysis of mainly non-invasively collected samples, we show that the okapi is both highly genetically distinct and highly genetically diverse, an unusual combination of genetic traits for an endangered species, and feature a complex evolutionary history. Genetic data are consistent with repeated climatic cycles leading to multiple Plio-Pleistocene refugia in isolated forests in the Congo catchment but also imply historic gene flow across the Congo River.