Background: One of the major challenges in evolutionary biology is identifying rare species and devising management plans to protect them while also sustaining their genetic diversity. However, in attempting a broad understanding of rarity, single-species studies provide limited insights because they do not reveal whether the factors that affect rare species differ from those that affect more common species. To illustrate this important concept and to arrive at a better understanding of the form of rarity characterizing the rare Gerbillus henleyi, we explored its population genetic structure alongside that of the locally common Gerbillus andersoni allenbyi. We trapped gerbils in several locations in Israel's western and inner Negev sand dunes. We then extracted DNA from ear samples, and amplified two mitochondrial sequences: the control region (CR) and the cytochrome oxidase 2 gene (CO2).
Results: Nucleotide diversity was low for all sequences, especially for the CR of G. a. allenbyi, which showed no diversity. We could not detect any significant population genetic structure in G. henleyi. In contrast, G. a. allenbyi's CO2 sequence showed significant population genetic structure. Pairwise PhiPT comparisons showed low values for G. henleyi but high values for G. a. allenbyi. Analysis of the species' demographic history indicated that G. henleyi's population size has not changed recently, and is under the influence of an ongoing bottleneck. The same analysis for G. a. allenbyi showed that this species has undergone a recent population expansion.
Conclusions: Comparing the two species, the populations of G. a. allenbyi are more isolated from each other, likely due to the high habitat specificity characterizing this species. The bottleneck pattern found in G. henleyi may be the result of competition with larger gerbil species. This result, together with the broad habitat use and high turnover rate characterizing G. henleyi, may explain the low level of differentiation among its populations. The evidence for a recent population expansion of G. a. allenbyi fits well with known geomorphological data about the formation of the Negev sand dunes and paleontological data about this species' expansion throughout the Levant. In conclusion, we suggest that adopting a comparative approach as presented here can markedly improve our understanding of the causes and effects of rarity, which in turn can allow us to better protect biodiversity patterns.