Interview with the Author: Conservation of old individual trees and small populations is integral to maintain species’ genetic diversity of a historically fragmented woody perennial

What is the unit of conservation? Is it similar for different types of plants? How does the reproductive biology of the organism can inform the best practices in conserving threatened species? In her Doctoral research, Nicole Bezemer is studying Eucaliptus species from South Western Australia to better understand population dynamics in long-lived organisms and how this can lead to better management of their populations. Surprisingly, many of the small and fragmented populations of the two subspecies of E. caesia she studied are genetically differentiated at a fine spatial scale, and high levels of heterozygosity persists even in populations with a dozen of individuals. Nicole and colleagues suggest the clonal and perennial nature of E. caesia might contribute to these unusual patterns of genetic diversity and divergence, and suggest that traditional conservation genetic approaches might be detrimental for naturally fragmented species with these life-history characteristics. Read here about her experience in developing this research.

A multi-stemmed genet of Eucalyptus caesia at Mocardy Hill, Western Australia. Photo by NB.

What led to your interest in this topic / what was the motivation for this study? 
Eucalyptus caesia is an intriguing study species, given the combination of a distribution on scattered granite outcrops, a long history of geographic and genetic insularity, a capacity for individual longevity via lignotuber re-sprouting, a lack of recent recruitment in most known stands, and adaptation for pollination by nectarivorous birds. After completing my Honours research at the Boyagin stand of E. caesia, I was hooked. The present study came into fruition upon discovering that one of my PhD experiments, involving 6 months of controlled cross-pollinations, was killed by a series of frosts. I had already genotyped two large stands of E. caesia and I was curious about what patterns of genetic structure might exist in other stands, and across the species’ landscape distribution. 

What difficulties did you run into along the way? 
Some stands of E. caesia are located on immense granite outcrops, often hidden in hard-to-access gullies or behind thick barricades of vegetation. The first challenging aspect of the project was to find the sub-populations of E. caesia at each new location. For many populations, I did so by embarking on a Google Earth tour led by my supervisor, Steve Hopper, who has worked on the granite outcrop flora of south-west Australia and on E. caesia for nearly four decades. Nonetheless, I spent many hours traversing granite outcrops, sometimes in circles, which occasionally led to finding additional plants or, in the case of the E. caesia at Old Muntadgin, a previously undocumented population of several hundred plants.

What is the biggest or most surprising innovation highlighted in this study? 
I was surprised by the apparent lack of genetic interconnection between some stands over relatively small spatial scales. Given the long history of population fragmentation and reproductive biology of E. caesia (multiple modes of reproduction and gravity-dispersed seed), I anticipated that high levels of genetic differentiation would feature. Regardless, it was surprising to find that, in some instances, the level of genetic differentiation within stands exceeded that among stands. Another interesting result revealed by comprehensive genotyping were some very small census population sizes. Seven stands were comprised of fewer than ten unique multi-locus genotypes, and three locations had only one or two genotypes. Localised clonal reproduction is clearly of paramount importance to the persistence of these stands.

Moving forward, what are the next steps in this area of research?
The next step is to further test the genetic integrity of the two subspecies, E. caesia subsp. caesia and E. caesia subsp. magna, by genotyping plants from additional stands. Walyamoning and Yanneymooning are geographical outliers to other stands of subsp. caesia and occur within relatively close proximity to the group of subsp. magna populations located in the north-east of the species distribution. We propose to genotype a sample of individuals from the two outlier populations of subsp. caesia stands, and at three additional locations of subsp. magna, to test whether the two subspecies are genetically distinct even when populations are sympatric, and to determine if hybridisation has occurred.

What would your message be for students about to start developing or using novel techniques in Molecular Ecology? 
My message to other young or early-career researchers is to have a clear research outcome in mind before exploring the application of novel techniques. Avoid putting yourself in the position of having to come up with a hypothesis after the fact.

What have you learned about methods and resources development over the course of this project? 
Comprehensive genotyping at multiple spatial scales may provide a more complete picture of spatial genetic structure compared to studies where sampling efforts are focused on few individuals from many populations, or on many individuals from few populations. There is still much to be gained from population genetic studies, especially in understudied, biodiverse, endemism hotspots such as granite outcrops, and in understudied systems such as small, historically fragmented populations of long-lived trees.

Describe the significance of this research for the general scientific community in one sentence.
Anciently fragmented plant populations may be adept at persisting as small populations with low genetic diversity and limited genetic interconnection, and therefore attempts to connect such populations may be ineffective or even harmful.

Describe the significance of this research for your scientific community in one sentence.
Small populations of long-lived woody perennial plants, even those comprising a handful of individuals, may contain unique genotypes that contribute to overall species genetic diversity, and are worthy of conservation.

Enjoying the afternoon light from my field base camp underneath Eucalyptus caesia at Boyagin Rock. Photo by NB.

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