- 1Alpine plant species are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Therefore, estimating the adaptive potential of alpine species is of vital importance for determining their future viability. In alpine plants, adaptive potential depends on (i) altitudinal genetic differentiation among populations, combined with gene flow along an altitudinal gradient; (ii) phenotypic plasticity for the traits under selection and (iii) co-gradient variation between genetic and environmental influences on these traits.
- 2The adaptive potential of Festuca eskia Ramond (Poaceae), a perennial alpine grass common in the Pyrenean Mountains, was examined in this study. A reciprocal transplant experiment involving 180 individuals along three altitudinal gradients (from 1500 to 2500 m) was established, and survival, functional and reproductive traits were recorded. In addition, four neutral sequence-tagged site and simple sequence repeat molecular markers were chosen to estimate gene flow among populations.
- 3Genetic differentiation attributable to selection was detected in all traits between populations along the altitudinal gradient despite the existence of restricted gene flow. For traits directly related to fitness, local altitudinal adaptation was clearly evident. The patterns of local adaptation suggested that selection patterns differed along an altitudinal gradient. Selection for reproductive output was predominant at low altitudes, whereas differential survivorship was observed at higher altitudes.
- 4Genetic differentiation with increasing altitude resulted in reduced plant stature and reproductive output but increased specific leaf area (SLA). This increased SLA at higher altitude is interpreted as a resource acquisition strategy.
- 5Phenotypic plasticity was seen in all traits at the population level. Evidence of co-gradient variation between genetic differentiation and plastic response was found for all traits except SLA, suggesting that adaptive phenotypic plasticity operates in F. eskia.
- 6 Synthesis. Local adaptation occurs in F. eskia. It involves different adaptive traits according to the altitude. Such differentiation occurs at a small scale along altitudinal gradients despite the existence of gene flow and phenotypic plasticity. The coexistence of genetic differentiation, gene flow and phenotypic plasticity along altitudinal gradients provides an adaptive potential for F. eskia to successfully adapt to climate change.