Antarctica is an ice-dominated continent and all its terrestrial and freshwater habitats are fragmented, which leads to genetic divergence and, eventually, speciation. Acutuncus antarcticus is the most common Antarctic tardigrade and its cryptobiotic capabilities, small size and parthenogenetic reproduction present a high potential for dispersal and colonisation. Morphological (light and electron microscopy, karyology) and molecular (18S rRNA and cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) genes) analyses on seven populations of A. antarcticus elucidated the genetic diversity and distribution of this species. All analysed populations were morphologically indistinguishable and made up of diploid females. All specimens presented the same 18S rRNA sequence. In contrast, COI analysis showed higher variability, with most Victoria Land populations presenting up to five different haplotypes. Genetic distances between Victoria Land specimens and those found elsewhere in Antarctica were low, while distances between Dronning Maud Land and specimens from elsewhere were high. Our analyses show that A. antarcticus can still be considered a pan-Antarctic species, although the moderately high genetic diversity within Victoria Land indicates the potential for speciation events. Regions of Victoria Land are considered to have been possible refugia during the last glacial maximum and a current biodiversity hotspot, which the populations of A. antarcticus mirror with a higher diversity than in other regions of Antarctica.
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Vol. 30 • No. 6