Genetic variation in early fitness traits across European populations of silver birch (Betula pendula). uri icon

abstract

  • Given that the ecological niche of tree species is typically narrower for earlier life stages, intraspecific genetic variation at early fitness traits may greatly influence the adaptive response of tree populations to changing environmental conditions. In this study, we evaluated genetic variation in early fitness traits among 12 populations of Betula pendula from a wide latitudinal range in Europe (41-55 degrees N). We first conducted a chamber experiment to test for population differences in germination and the effect of pre-chilling treatment on seed dormancy release. We then established three common gardens spread across the species latitudinal range in order to evaluate levels of quantitative genetic variation and genotype-by-environment interaction at different early life traits. Our results showed significant variation in chamber germination rates among populations (0-60 %), with southern populations exhibiting lower germination. Pre-chilling treatments did not generally improve germination success. Population seedling emergence rates in the field were correlated with chamber germination rates, though being an order of magnitude lower, with an average ranging from 0 to 1.3 % across gardens. Highly significant variation was found in field emergence rates among populations, and between seed-crop years within populations, but not among families within populations. Populations differed in seedling height, diameter, slenderness and budburst date, with significant among-family variation. Population latitude was positively associated with chamber germination rate and with seedling emergence rate in one of the central field sites. Overall, genetic, environmental and demographic factors seem to influence the observed high levels of variation in early fitness traits among B. pendula populations. Our results suggest limited regeneration capacity for the study species under drier conditions, but further field trials with sufficient replication over environments and seed crops will improve our understanding of its vulnerability to climate change.

publication date

  • 2020
  • 2020