The location of the high mountains of southern Europe has been crucial in the phylogeography of most European species, but how extrinsic (topography of sky islands) and intrinsic features (dispersal dynamics) have interacted to shape the genetic structure in alpine restricted species is still poorly known. Here we investigated the mechanisms explaining the colonisation of Cantabrian sky islands in an endemic flightless grasshopper. We scrutinised the maternal genetic variability and haplotype structure, and we evaluated the fitting of two migration models to understand the extant genetic structure in these populations: Long-distance dispersal (LDD) and gradual distance dispersal (GDD). We found that GDD fits the real data better than the LDD model, with an onset of the expansion matching postglacial expansions after the retreat of the ice sheets. Our findings suggest a scenario with small carrying capacity, migration rates, and population growth rates, being compatible with a slow dispersal process. The gradual expansion process along the Cantabrian sky islands found here seems to be conditioned by the suitability of habitats and the presence of alpine corridors. Our findings shed light on our understanding about how organisms which have adapted to live in alpine habitats with limited dispersal abilities have faced new and suitable environmental conditions.
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