The complete, genome-wide phylogenetic history of speciation and adaptive radiation in Blind Mole Rats (Spalax and Nannospalax) in their entire distribution range.

The Blind Mole Rats (BMR), sub-family Spalacinae, with two genera Nannospalax and Spalax, are known for their complex evolutionary history. These rodents are uniquely adapted to obligate subterranean lifestyle, can tolerate extreme hypoxic stress and are resistant to cancer. The BMR has most likely originated in the Near East ~16 million years ago, but their subsequent history of divergence and speciation in Anatolia, Balkans, Levant and the Black Sea region is still unclear. The presence of exceptionally high number of chromosomal forms in the genus Nannospalax (but not in Spalax) is particularly puzzling, since their current diversity and distribution are difficult to explain by the contemporary variation in the habitat or in climate. Comparative analysis of DNA sequences is a reliable method to infer phylogenetic history, which can be applied to the BMR. However, all previous research aimed at the phylogeny reconstruction used partial mitochondrial DNA sequences, a method that can produce biased results and generally provides limited resolution. No study covered an entire geographic distribution range of the BMR nor anyone looked at the nuclear DNA sequences. Based on the current knowledge of BMR biogeography as well as on our preliminary results, we propose a hypothesis that multiple narrowly distributed cytogenetically (Nannospalax) or morphologically (Spalax) distinct forms could be the surviving relics of populations with much larger distribution in the past. To test our hypothesis, we aim to reveal, for the first time, the evolutionary relationships between all major forms of BMR using DNA samples collected in Turkey, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Bulgaria, Greece and Egypt. We will use Genotyping-by-Sequencing approach to sequence hundreds of individuals at hundreds of ddRAD (double digest Restriction site Associated DNA) markers to construct a robust, time-calibrated phylogeny of all species and all major cytogenetic forms of Spalax and Nannospalax, and will complement these results with phylogeny based on partial mtDNA sequences. Using combined nuclear and mtDNA data, we will be able to infer the timing of the major divergence events in the evolutionary history of BMR, and will reveal whether there is ongoing hybridization between different populations. The results of the project will a have a significant impact on the international scientific community working on the evolutionary and biogeographic history of the Middle East, Black Sea region and Europe.

Funding: TUBİTAK 1001 (119Z400)

Research team: Alexey Yanchukov, Raşit Bilgin, Faruk Çolak, Ferhat Matur, Mustafa Sözen, Mikhail Rusin, Ortaç Çetintaş, Halil Mert Solak

Invesitigation of Dispersal and Demographic Characteristics of Blind Mole Rats Using Microsatellite Markers

Demographical and distributional studies are major topics of species biology and give us significant datas to understand species ecology. Although we have limited knowledge about biology of Anatolian Blind Mole Rat, there is no studies depending on population monitoring data about distribution and demographic features of this species. This study will enrich our knowledge about population biology of Anatolian Blind Mole Rats which are very interesting in terms of their morphology, adaptation and chromosomal diversity. In a steppe which is about 400x600m in size and not used for agricultural and pasture contains about 120 nests (Bolu, Gerede) it is planned to study demographic and distribution characteristics of individuals with catch drop method. First specimens will be caught in 2019 between June-October, mark with PIT tag and standart measurements (nest coordinate, sex, weight etc. about individual features) will measure after these procedures specimes will left back to their nests. At the end of one year, all the individuals in the population will be captured again, whether the individuals are tagged and the coordinates they have captured are recorded, then the standard measurements will be recorded and returned to their nests. With the data collected, the estimation of one-year standard demographic parameters will be made. DNA isolation will be made from tissue samples taken from individuals and genotype of at least 10 microsatellite regions of each individual will be determined. With the help of microsatellite markers, parenting test, reproductive status of individuals, multiple fatherhood, breeding status as well as breeding status will be obtained.

Funding: Scientific Research Council of Bülent Ecevit University.

Research team: Faruk Çolak, Bahar Bayramoğlu, Bahar Saha

Hybrid speciation and parthenogenesis in rock lizards

The rock lizards of genus Darevskia includes bisexual as well as parthenogenetic forms, recognized as separate unisexual species (Darevsky 1967). Their origin can be traced to hybridization between the bisexual members of two deeply divergent clades, while the current hybridization within the clades (i.e. between recently diverged species) never causes parthenogenesis (Murphy et al. 2000). In collaboration with Prof. David Tarkhnishvili and his group at the University of Ilia in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, we are using microsatellite and ddRAD-seq genotyping to infer the details of origin of all seven parthenogenetic forms from their putative parents. We aim to re-evaluate the established view that every parthenogenetic form of Dare​vskia is a result of one or a few rare hybridization events in the past.

Funding: TÜBITAK (216Z189) in frames of bilateral agreement with Georgia's Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation (SRNSF)

Research team (in Turkey): Alexey Yanchukov (Principal Investigator), Mehmet Kürşat Şahin, Kamil Candan, Faruk Çolak, Ferhat Matur, Meriç Erdolu, Cetin Ilgaz, Yusuf Kumlutaş


Adaptation to living at high altitude mountain environment in a subterranean rodent, the blind mole rat Nannospalax xanthodon

The Anatolian Blind Mole Rat (Nannospalax xanthodon) is an obligate subterranean rodent found from the sea level to up to 3000 m. a.s.l. (Sözen 2004). Despite getting some protection from the elements underground, it is still affected by the short vegetation season and colder temperatures in the mountains. At 3000 m a.s.l., it must also cope with low atmospheric concentration of oxygen, additionally exaggerated by decreased O2 and elevated CO2 levels in the closed underground burrows (Shams, Avivi, and Nevo 2005). This combined effect would make BMR one of the most hypoxia-tolerant animals known. Common genetic adaptations to hypoxia in mammals involve fixation of certain nucleotide sequence or structural mutations that increase the O2 affinity of hemoglobin (Storz 2007). To test if this is the case in BMR, we are currently looking at the primary DNA structure of the alpha- and beta- globin gene clusters in animals collected from two populations at different altitudes in Central Taurus mountains. Adaptation to high altitudes can also be caused by biotic factors, such as different abundance/composition or parasites and the energy costs and/or benefits of maintaining a strong immune system in the mountains. In collaboration with Jamie Winternitz at the University of Bielefeld, Germany, we are comparing the strengths of the immune defense between the same two populations (high and low altitude) using experimental immunochemistry assays. The first results suggest that the mole rats from the high altitude have a stronger standing immune system. Our working hypothesis is that it might help them to avoid the risk of getting serious infections in a demanding mountain environment, but further investigation of other immune system components, such as adaptive immunity and MHC gene variation will be performed to make more robust conclusions.

Funding: TÜBITAK (117Z596)

Research team: Alexey Yanchukov (Principal Investigator), Faruk Çolak, Ferhat Matur, Mustafa Sözen , Halil Mert Solak.

Phylogenetic history and speciation of blind mole rats south and north of the Black Sea

The Blind Mole Rats (BMR) of two genera Nannospalax and Spalax, are known for their complex evolutionary history. The group has most likely originated in the Middle East millions of years ago, but their subsequent history of divergence and speciation in Anatolia, Balkans, and Ponto-Caspian region is still unclear. We looked at the molecular phylogenetic relationship and population genetic structure of BMR from Central and Western Anatolia, including Thrace, and clearly demonstrated a deep evolutionary divergence between the Central Anatolian and Aegean populations of BMR (Matur et al. 2018). We also study the molecular phylogeneny of BMR north of the Black Sea, in collaboration with Mykhailo Rusin from Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology of NAS of Ukraine. Here we showed, for the first time, that speciation in genus Spalax proceeded in up to three waves of colonization in the west-east direction in the territory of modern Ukraine, and that the changing course of the river Dnipro could have played a major role in the origin of existing species.

Funding: BEÜ infrastructure development fund

Research team: Ortaç Çetintaş, Alexey Yanchukov, Ferhat Matur

Abundance, local habitat distribution and seasonal migration of dolphins in the Black Sea around Zonguldak

The Black Sea (BS) is home to three cetacean species with global distribution, two of them designated as endangered and one as a vulnerable by IUCN. All three are under enormous human-induced pressure: direct hunting until 1983, present day by-catch, over-exploitation of the food base, pollution, habitat modification and disturbance by heavy marine traffic. There is insufficient information on their current overall population density and abundance: only few local transect surveys have been conducted recently in order to estimate population sizes in the BS. No population studies were ever conducted along the South-West part of the BS coast between Istanbul and Sinop. Our study will provide the first systematic, year-round record on the abundance and behavior of cetaceans along a 60 km stretch of coast centered around the city of Zonguldak. We are comparing the distribution and behavior patters in different natural (sand beaches, river mouth) and man-modified (sea port, urban zone) coastal habitats.

Funding:  pending results of several applications

Research team: Nastassia Uluduz, Alexey Yanchukov, Halil Mert Solak, Mustafa Sözen


Genetic diversity and distribution of Turkish endemic mammals

Turkey has seven endemic mammal species. However, the distribution areas and genetic diversities of these species are not known properly. We aimed to find out their distribution areas, isolated populations and genetic diversity among these populations. After that to propose protection priority areas. 

Funding: TUBITAK

Research team: Faruk Çolak, Ferhat Matur, Muhsin Çoğal, Ortaç Çetintaş, Sercan Irmak, Kenan K. Kalkan, Mustafa Sözen

Investigation of Hantavirus Presense and Distribution in Apodemus spp., Microtus spp., Chionomys spp., Mus spp., Crocidura spp. and Cricetulus migratorius Species in the East of Turkey (provinces Ardahan, Bitlis, Bingöl, Elazığ, Erzincan, Erzurum, Iğdır, Kars, Malatya, Muş, Sivas, Tunceli, Van).


Apodemus flavicollis, Myodes glareolus, Apodemus agrarius, Microtus arvalis ve Rattus norvegicus are known as carriers of Dobrava (DOBV), Puumala (PUUV), Saaremaa (SAAV), Tula (TULV) ve Seoul (SEOV) viruses in Turkey.

The presence of hantaviruses in the wild rodents in Turkey has been reported for the first time in 2006. The first HFRS cases in Turkey have been reported from Western Black Sea Region in 2009. After these studies, hantavirus infections are corrected both rodents and HFRS suspicious cases in different regions.

The existence of hantavirus infections among the rodent population in Eastern Anatolia Region and Sivas have not screened as yet. In the present study determination of prevalence of the hantavirus infections, the circulating species of the virus among the rodent populations in the some provinces in Eastern Turkey. We intend to isolation of virus in rodents and molecular characterization in these regions.

In this study, serum and tissue samples of trapped rodents with the field work in Mediterranean and Central Anatolia regions will be screened for hantavirus with serological and molecular methods. The identification of trapped rodents species will be done with phenotypically and genotypically. Detected virus species and their genetic origin will be investigated with phlogenetic analysis. Additinally, since an insectivore species Crocidura douceti known as hantavirus carrier, Crocidura species that known to distribute in study area (C. leucodon ve C. suaveolens) were included in the project. So these insectivore species will be evaluated for the first time in Turkey for hantaviruses.

The following up the infection in rodent populations and the prediction of possible outbreak regions will be provided in Eastern Anatolia region and Sivas province with this study. If these regions detected at risk for the outbreak, authorities could be warned previously. Also molecular typing and characterization will be done with the isolation virus/viruses in these regions and potential new hantavirus can be determined.

Funding: TUBITAK

Research team: (in Turkey): Mehmet Ali Öktem, Mustafa Sözen, Ferhat Matur, Ortaç Çetintaş, Muhsin Çoğal, Sercan Irmak

Vertabrate Evolutionary Biology Lab of Bülent Ecevit University, 2020 © by Solak.

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