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Mammalian herbivores reveal marked genetic divergence among populations of an endangered plant species


J. M. O'Reilly-Wapstra, School of Plant Science and CRC for Forestry, Univ. of Tasmania, Private Bag 55, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia. E-mail:


Quantitative genetically based traits in dominant and keystone tree species can have extended effects on other biota and also on ecosystem processes. This has direct implications for managed plant systems, where choice of genetic stock in conservation or commercial plantings will affect the ecological and evolutionary trajectory of the associated biotic communities. Hence an understanding of genetic variation in quantitative traits, especially those that relate directly to fitness, should be incorporated into the management of species. In plants, quantitative traits such as foliar defences that mediate the complexity of biotic interactions (e.g. herbivory), may be key fitness traits to consider in the management of gene pools of species that are of high conservation value. In this paper we examine the interactions of an endangered eucalypt species, Eucalyptus morrisbyi and a marsupial herbivore, the common brushtail possum Trichosurus vulpecula. We investigate the genetic variability of resistance of plants sourced from two populations and genetic variability in foliage defences as key quantitative traits that may be essential for survival of this eucalypt species. Trichosurus vulpecula detect clear genetic divergence in the two E. morrisbyi populations as evidenced by their browsing preferences in the field. In addition, trees from the more susceptible population (Calverts Hill) suffered fitness consequences with lower flowering than trees from the more resistant population (Risdon Hills). Field feeding preferences were confirmed in captive feeding trials arguing differences were due to foliar attributes consistent with the genetic-based differences observed in key chemical and physical foliage traits. Biotic interactions such as herbivory may affect populations of rare plant species. Results of this study highlight the need to understand the degree of genetic differentiation of resistance to herbivores and in the quantitative traits mediating these interactions in species of high conservation value, as these traits affect the adaptive potential of populations.