Hybridization patterns in contact zones reveal a new Central European snake species
Recent studies found major conflicts between traditional taxonomy and genetic differentiation of grass snakes and identified previously unknown secondary contact zones. Until now, little is known about gene flow across these contact zones. Using two mitochondrial markers and 13 microsatellite loci, we examined two contact zones. One, largely corresponding to the Rhine region, involves the western subspecies Natrix natrix helvetica and the eastern subspecies N. n. natrix, whereas in the other, more easterly, contact zone two lineages meet that are currently identified with N. n. natrix and N. n. persa. This second contact zone runs across Central Europe to the southern Balkans. Our analyses reveal that the western contact zone is narrow, with parapatrically distributed mitochondrial lineages and limited, largely unidirectional nuclear gene flow. In contrast, the eastern contact zone is very wide, with massive nuclear admixture and broadly overlapping mitochondrial lineages. In combination with additional lines of evidence (morphology, phylogeny, divergence times), we conclude that these differences reflect different stages in the speciation process and that Natrix helvetica should be regarded as a distinct species. We suggest a nomenclatural framework for presently recognized grass snake taxa and highlight the need for reconciling the conflicts between genetics and taxonomy.