Increased mortality of forest trees, driven directly or indirectly by climate change, is occurring around the world. In western North America, whitebark pine, a high elevation keystone species, and lodgepole pine, a widespread ecologically and economically important tree, have experienced extensive mortality in recent climate-driven outbreaks of the mountain pine beetle. However, even in stands experiencing high levels of mortality, some mature trees have survived. We hypothesized that the outbreak acted as a natural selection event, removing trees most susceptible to the beetle and least adapted to warmer drier conditions. If this was the case, genetic change would be expected at loci underlying beetle resistance. Given we did not know the basis for resistance, we used inter-simple sequence repeats to compare the genetic profiles of two sets of trees, survivors (mature, living trees) and general population (trees just under the diameter preferred by the beetles and expected to approximate the genetic structure of each tree species at the site without beetle selection). This method detects high levels of polymorphism and has often been able to detect patterns associated with phenotypic traits. For both whitebark and lodgepole pine, survivors and general population trees mostly segregated independently indicating a genetic basis for survivorship. Exceptions were a few general population trees that segregated with survivors in proportions roughly reflecting the proportion of survivors versus beetle-killed trees. Our results indicate that during outbreaks, beetle choice may result in strong selection for trees with greater resistance to attack. Our findings suggest that survivorship is genetically based and, thus, heritable. Therefore, retaining survivors after outbreaks to act as primary seed sources could act to promote adaptation. Further research will be needed to characterize the actual mechanism(s) of resistance.
Keywords: Dendroctonus ponderosae; Pinus albicaulis; Pinus contorta; climate adaptation; climate change; natural selection; whitebark pine.