Linking genetic diversity, mating patterns and progeny performance in fragmented populations of a Mediterranean shrub


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1. The long-term persistence of fragmented plant populations is predicted to be threatened by a loss of genetic variability and increasing inbreeding, which might lower offspring fitness through inbreeding depression. Assessing plant progeny performance together with measurements of genetic diversity and mating patterns is therefore essential in the understanding of the role of the historical (i.e. genetic diversity in adults) and contemporary (i.e. current mating patterns) genetic effects of fragmentation on inbreeding depression, thus, on recruitment potential.

2. We evaluated genetic diversity, mating patterns and progeny performance at different life stages in seven populations of a Mediterranean shrub (myrtle Myrtus communis) that differed in size and degree of isolation (Large, Small-connected and Small-isolated populations). The study was conducted in the Guadalquivir Valley (SW Spain), a chronically and severely fragmented landscape characterized by c. 1% of woodland cover.

3. Parameters of genetic diversity (Ar, Ho and He) of adult plants were in general higher in the Large populations than in the two types of Small populations, which were similar. Outcrossing rates were higher in Small-connected populations (mean: tm = 0·62), intermediate in Large (tm = 0·35) and lower in Small-isolated populations (tm = 0·13), and were positively correlated with the genetic diversity of progenies.

4. Several measurements of progeny performance were higher in Small-connected populations, intermediate in Large and lower in Small-isolated populations, in particular those related with the quantity of viable seedlings produced (germination and survival). Outcrossing rates rather than the genetic diversity of adult plants were positively correlated with these measurements of progeny performance.

5. We thus conclude that contemporary mating patterns (outcrossing rates) have a more critical influence on progeny performance than either population fragmentation or the historical levels of genetic diversity.

6.Synthesis and applications. It may be possible to enhance either the fitness or certain levels of genetic diversity in progenies by promoting outcrossed matings in fragmented populations of self-compatible plant species. In our study species, this would be feasible either by controlling honeybee Apis mellifera hives or maintaining and/or enhancing landscape connectivity around small patches.