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Inbreeding at the edge: does inbreeding depression increase under more stressful conditions?


A. García-Fernández Área de Biodiversidad y Conservación, ESCET, Univ. Rey Juan Carlos, C\Tulipán SN, Móstoles, ES-28933 Madrid, Spain. E-mail:


Edge populations are frequently small and subject to stressful conditions that may compromise their long-term viability. Inbreeding can play an important role in small populations by reducing genetic diversity, leading to the fixation of deleterious mutations and, finally, carrying populations to an extinction vortex through inbreeding depression. Although stressful conditions may enhance the intensity of inbreeding depression, evidence to date is inconclusive in marginal habitats. Local adaptation, promoting native genotypes, and gene flow, reducing allele fixation, are two factors that can have different effects on the intensity of inbreeding depression. Three populations of Silene ciliata distributed across an elevation gradient at the southernmost edge of the species distribution were used for this study. Several fitness components – germination, survival and growth rate – were compared between inbred seedlings and seedlings from within- and between-population outcrosses, both in the field and controlled conditions. Overall, inbred seedlings had lower fitness than outcrossed seedlings. For most of the variables analysed, similar inbreeding depression effects were found in all three populations, but, for seed weight and seedling survival curve, inbreeding depression was only found in the low altitude population. Similarly, inbreeding depression was more evident in the field than in controlled chamber conditions. Outcrosses between populations contributed to an increase in most fitness estimates and populations, suggesting that the benefits of reducing inbreeding depression overrode the potentially deleterious effects of disrupting local adaptation. Our results suggest that inbreeding depression plays an important role in the fitness of early life stages of Silene ciliata at its southernmost distribution limit, but only provided partial support to the hypothesis that stressful conditions enhance the expression of inbreeding depression.