Determining the biogeographical histories of rainforests is central to our understanding of the present distribution of tropical biodiversity. Ice age fragmentation of central African rainforests strongly influenced species distributions. Elevated areas characterized by higher species richness and endemism have been postulated to be Pleistocene forest refugia. However, it is often difficult to separate the effects of history and of present-day ecological conditions on diversity patterns at the interspecific level. Intraspecific genetic variation could yield new insights into history, because refugia hypotheses predict patterns not expected on the basis of contemporary environmental dynamics. Here, we test geographically explicit hypotheses of vicariance associated with the presence of putative refugia and provide clues about their location. We intensively sampled populations of Aucoumea klaineana, a forest tree sensitive to forest fragmentation, throughout its geographical range. Characterizing variation at 10 nuclear microsatellite loci, we were able to obtain phylogeographic data of unprecedented detail for this region. Using Bayesian clustering approaches, we demonstrated the presence of four differentiated genetic units. Their distribution matched that of forest refugia postulated from patterns of species richness and endemism. Our data also show differences in diversity dynamics at leading and trailing edges of the species' shifting distribution. Our results confirm predictions based on refugia hypotheses and cannot be explained on the basis of present-day ecological conditions.
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