Understanding the resistance and resilience of foundation plant species to climate change is a critical issue because the loss of these species would fundamentally reshape communities and ecosystem processes. High levels of population genetic diversity may buffer foundation species against climate disruptions, but the strong selective pressures associated with climatic shifts may also rapidly reduce such diversity. We characterized genetic diversity and its responsiveness to experimental drought in the foundation plant, black grama grass (Bouteloua eriopoda), which dominates many western North American grasslands and shrublands. Previous studies suggested that in arid ecosystems, black grama reproduces largely asexually via stolons, and thus is likely to have low genetic variability, which might limit its potential to respond to climate disruptions. Using genotyping-by-sequencing, we demonstrated unexpectedly high genetic variability among black grama plants in a 1 ha site within the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico, suggesting some level of sexual reproduction. Three years of experimental, growing season drought reduced black grama survival and biomass (the latter by 96%), with clear genetic differentiation (higher FST) between plants succumbing to drought and those remaining alive. Reduced genetic variability in the surviving plants in drought plots indicated that the experimental drought had forced black grama populations through selection bottlenecks. These results suggest that foundation grass species, such as black grama, may experience rapid evolutionary change if future climates include more severe droughts.
Keywords: Climate change; Experimental evolution; Genotyping-by-sequencing; Natural selection; Sevilleta long-term ecological research.