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Keywords:

  • Ecotypes;
  • genetic variation;
  • hydraulic architecture;
  • microsatellites;
  • phenotypic plasticity

Summary

1. Pinus ponderosa occurs in a range of contrasting environments in the western USA. Xeric populations typically have lower leaf : sapwood area ratio (AL/AS) and higher whole-tree leaf specific hydraulic conductance (KL) than mesic populations. These climate-driven shifts in hydraulic architecture are considered adaptive because they maintain minimum leaf water potential above levels that cause xylem cavitation.

2. Using a common garden study, we examined whether differences in biomass allocation and hydraulic architecture between P. ponderosa populations originating from isolated outcrops in the Great Basin desert and Sierran montane environments were caused by ecotypic differentiation or phenotypic plasticity. To determine if populations were genetically differentiated and if phenotypic and genetic differentiation coincided, we also characterized the genetic structure of these populations using DNA microsatellites.

3. Phenotypic differentiation in growth, biomass allocation and hydraulic architecture was variable among populations in the common garden. There were no systematic differences between desert and montane climate groups that were consistent with adaptive expectations. Drought had no effect on the root : shoot and needle : stem ratio, but reduced seedling biomass accumulation, leaf area ratio, AL/AS and KL. Stem hydraulic conductance (KH) was strongly size-dependent, and was lower in droughted plants, primarily because of lower growth.

4. Although microsatellites were able to detect significant non-zero (P < 0·001) levels of differentiation between populations, these differences were small and were not correlated with geographic separation or climate group. Estimates of genetic differentiation among populations were low (<5%), and almost all the genetic variation (>95%) resided within populations, suggesting that gene flow was the dominant factor shaping genetic structure.

5. These results indicate that biomass allocation and hydraulic differences between desert and montane populations are not the result of ecotypic differentiation. Significant drought effects on leaf : sapwood allocation and KL suggest that phenotypic differentiation between desert and montane climates could be the result of phenotypic plasticity.