Habitat fragmentation in African chafers
Today, indigenous forests cover less than 0.6% of South Africa’s land surface and are highly fragmented. Most forest relicts are very small and typically occur in fire-protected gorges along the eastern Great Escarpment. Yet, they hold a unique and valuable fauna with high endemism and ancient phylogenetic lineages, fostered by long-term climatic stability and complex microclimates. Despite numerous studies on southern African vegetation cover, the current state of knowledge about the natural extension of indigenous forests is rather fragmentary. We use an integrated approach of population-level phylogeography and climatic niche modeling of forest-associated chafer species to
assess connectivity and extent of forest habitats since the last glacial maximum. Current and past species distribution models ascertained potential fluctuations of forest distribution and supported a much wider potential current extension of forests based on climatic data. Considerable genetic admixture of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA among many populations and an increase in mean population mutation rate in Extended Bayesian Skyline Plots of all species indicated more extended or better connected forests in the recent past (<5 kya). Genetic isolation of certain populations, as revealed by population differentiation statistics (G'ST), as well as landscape connectivity statistics and habitat succession scenarios suggests considerable loss of habitat connectivity. As major anthropogenic influence is likely, conservational actions need to be considered.