Evolutionary Potential in the Alpine: Trait Heritabilities and Performance Variation of the Dwarf Willow Salix Herbacea From Different Elevations and Microhabitats

Ecol Evol. 2016 May 12;6(12):3940-52. doi: 10.1002/ece3.2171. eCollection 2016 Jun.


Alpine ecosystems are seriously threatened by climate change. One of the key mechanisms by which plants can adapt to changing environmental conditions is through evolutionary change. However, we still know little about the evolutionary potential in wild populations of long-lived alpine plants. Here, we investigated heritabilities of phenological traits, leaf size, and performance traits in natural populations of the long-lived alpine dwarf shrub Salix herbacea using relatedness estimates inferred from SSR (Simple Sequence Repeat) markers. Salix herbacea occurs in early- and late-snowmelt microhabitats (ridges and snowbeds), and we assessed how performance consequences of phenological traits and leaf size differ between these microhabitats in order to infer potential for evolutionary responses. Salix herbacea showed low, but significant, heritabilities of leaf size, clonal and sexual reproduction, and moderate heritabilities of phenological traits. In both microhabitats, we found that larger leaves, longer intervals between snowmelt and leaf expansion, and longer GDD (growing-degree days) until leaf expansion resulted in a stronger increase in the number of stems (clonal reproduction). In snowbeds, clonal reproduction increased with a shorter GDD until flowering, while the opposite was found on ridges. Furthermore, the proportion of flowering stems increased with GDD until flowering in both microhabitats. Our results suggest that the presence of significant heritable variation in morphology and phenology might help S. herbacea to adapt to changing environmental conditions. However, it remains to be seen if the rate of such an evolutionary response can keep pace with the rapid rate of climate change.

Keywords: Adaptive evolution; SSR markers; alpine ecosystem; animal model; long‐lived plants; snowmelt microhabitats.