The Quaternary life history of a species determines its current range and the degree and distribution of its present genetic variation. Past climates, ecological relationships and disturbances in connection to evolutionary factors have determined the genetic and geographical distribution patterns of the current vegetation, and consequently, evolutionary processes can be inferred from those patterns. The aim of the present study is to find a plausible evolutionary explanation for the current natural range and genetic variation patterns of Austrocedrus chilensis (D. Don) Florin et Boutelje in Argentina.
The studied species ranges naturally over a narrow strip not wider than 50 km that runs parallel to the Cordillera de los Andes from 32°39′ S in Chile to 43°44′ S in Argentina. The studied populations are located in the Argentine range, especially in its central part.
Information on palynological data, current geographical distribution and on amount and distribution of genetic variation of the species in Argentina was the basis for an integrating analysis and discussion.
Palynological evidence of the past reported the presence of A. chilensis before and immediately after last glaciation on the east side of the Andes. The most conspicuous present populations of A. chilensis are located in areas that were covered by ice during the Last Glacial Maximum. The allelic multiplicity and diversity as well as the population differentiation of the species in Argentina were shown to be small, while the levels of heterozygosity were moderate. A latitudinal gradient trend was recognized as a pattern of distribution of variation in Argentina, the northerly populations being more variable. Extreme marginal populations located in the steppe, out of the glaciated area, show the greatest levels of variation.
Evidence was shown supporting that the major factor responsible for the variation pattern found in A. chilensis were the glacial processes. In the Argentine side of the Cordillera de los Andes the species could survive only in a narrow strip between the coldness of the ice sheet and the dryness of the steppe. That implies a generalized genetic drift process. Multiple small refuges in the eastern side of the Cordillera are hypothesized where this cypress would have survived to glaciation. Those refuges are postulated to have been chiefly localized slightly eastward to the present distribution area and most probably in a northern location, at least from 42°S of latitude to the north.