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Out in the cold – how big and how old? Genetic fingerprinting reveals long-lived individuals withstand climatic oscillations in the arctic-alpine

Authors


Allison Miller, Fax: 314-977-3658; E-mail: amille75@slu.edu

Abstract

In long-lived, clonally reproducing species, assessing organism size is a nontrivial endeavour because each genetically distinct entity (genet) may comprise multiple modular units (ramets). Attributes of clonally reproducing populations, such as genet size, longevity and clonal diversity (the number of genets in a population), have significant implications for the persistence of populations over time. In the context of climate change, population persistence contributes to community stability and ecosystem resilience. Do clonal individuals persist through periods of climatic oscillations? Are clonal populations composed of a few large and persistent clones, or do they include clones of different sizes and ages? In this issue, de Witte et al. (2012) present an exciting analysis of clonal diversity and genet longevity in populations of four arctic-alpine plant species with contrasting life histories: Carex curvula, Dryas octopetala, Salix herbacea and Vaccinium uliginosum. Using amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) data, the authors demonstrate that genet size ranged from a few centimetres to 18 metres and age estimates for the largest genets ranged from 500 to 4900 years. These data reveal that clonally reproducing populations include individuals that have outlived significant changes in climate. Despite the longevity of some individuals, clonal diversity within populations was high, with most individuals existing as small, relatively young genets. Long-lived individuals, together with high numbers of younger plants, ensure repeated recruitment and population persistence over time. This study represents a novel and timely contribution to a growing body of work aimed at understanding population persistence in changing climates.

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