Faculty Publications and Other Works -- Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

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When plants colonize new habitats altered by natural or anthropogenic disturbances, those individuals may encounter biotic and abiotic conditions novel to the species, which can cause plant functional trait divergence. Over time, site-driven adaptation can give rise to population-level genetic variation, with consequences for plant community dynamics and ecosystem processes. We used a series of 3000-yr-old, lava-created forest fragments on the Island of Hawai`i to examine whether disturbance and subsequent colonization can lead to genetically differentiated populations, and where differentiation occurs, if there are ecosystem consequences of trait-driven changes. These fragments are dominated by a single tree species, Metrosideros polymorpha (Myrtaceae) or ʻohiʻa, which have been actively colonizing the surrounding lava flow created in 1858. To test our ideas about differentiation of genetically determined traits, we (1) created rooted cuttings of ʻohiʻa individuals sampled from fragment interiors and open lava sites, raised these individuals in a greenhouse, and then used these cuttings to create a common garden where plant growth was monitored for three years; and (2) assessed genetic variation and made QST/FST comparisons using microsatellite repeat markers. Results from the greenhouse showed quantitative trait divergence in plant height and pubescence across plants sampled from fragment interior and matrix sites. Results from the subsequent common garden study confirmed that the matrix environment can select for individuals with 9.1% less shoot production and 17.3% higher leaf pubescence. We found no difference in molecular genetic variation indicating gene flow among the populations. The strongest QST level was greater than the FST estimate, indicating sympatric genetic divergence in growth traits. Tree height was correlated with ecosystem properties such as soil carbon and nitrogen storage, soil carbon turnover rates, and soil phosphatase activity, indicating that selection for growth traits will influence structure, function, and dynamics of developing ecosystems. These data show that divergence can occur on centennial timescales of early colonization.


This article was published openly thanks to the University of Tennessee Open Publishing Support Fund.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).

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