A knowledge of intraspecific divergence and range dynamics of dominant forest trees in response to past geological and climate change is of major importance to an understanding of their recent evolution and demography. Such knowledge is informative of how forests were affected by environmental factors in the past and may provide pointers to their response to future environmental change. However, genetic signatures of such historical events are often weak at individual loci due to large effective population sizes and long generation times of forest trees. This problem can be overcome by analysing genetic variation across multiple loci. We used this approach to examine intraspecific divergence and past range dynamics in the conifer Picea likiangensis, a dominant tree of forests occurring in eastern and southern areas of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (QTP). We sequenced 13 nuclear loci, two mitochondrial DNA regions and three plastid (chloroplast) DNA regions in 177 individuals sampled from 22 natural populations of this species, and tested the hypothesis that its evolutionary history was markedly affected by Pliocene QTP uplifts and Quaternary climatic oscillations. Consistent with the taxonomic delimitation of the three morphologically divergent varieties examined, all individuals clustered into three genetic groups with intervariety admixture detected in regions of geographical overlap. Divergence between varieties was estimated to have occurred within the Pliocene and ecological niche modelling based on 20 ecological variables suggested that niche differentiation was high. Furthermore, modelling of population-genetic data indicated that two of the varieties (var. rubescens and var. linzhiensis) expanded their population sizes after the largest Quaternary glaciation in the QTP, while expansion of the third variety (var. likiangensis) began prior to this, probably following the Pliocene QTP uplift. These findings point to the importance of geological and climatic changes during the Pliocene and Pleistocene as causes of intraspecific diversification and range shifts of dominant tree species in the QTP biodiversity hot spot region.
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