Plant conservation genetics in an Arctic archipelago

The photo shows one of the sampling localities in Svalbard. The red flags indicate the presence of Tofieldia pusilla, a rare plant species found only in the warmer areas of the archipelago. Photograph taken by Idunn Elisabeth Borgen Skjetne.

Small and peripheral populations often contain low levels of genetic variation. This may limit their ability to adapt to environmental change, including climate warming. In a recent study published in AoB PLANTS, Birkeland and colleagues show that many rare and threatened plant species in the High Arctic archipelago Svalbard harbour low levels of genetic variation. Most of them are probably relicts from the early Holocene warmer period. They have likely experienced strong genetic founder/bottleneck effects due to climatic limitations. Even though temperatures now are rising, it is highly uncertain whether this will be beneficial for these warmth-demanding species.

Reference

Birkeland, S., Elisabeth Borgen Skjetne, I., Krag Brysting, A., Elven, R., & Greve Alsos, I. (2017). Living on the edge: Conservation genetics of seven thermophilous plant species in a High Arctic archipelago. AoB Plants, plx001. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plx001