Pure species in a continuum of genetic and morphological variation: sympatric oaks at the edge of their range

Gemma E Beatty, W Ian Montgomery, Florentine Spaans, David G Tosh, Jim Provan
Annals of Botany 2016, 117 (4): 541-9

BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Studies on oaks (Quercus spp.) have often been hampered by taxonomic confusion, a situation further compounded by the occurrence of extensive interspecific hybridization. In the present study, a combination of genetic and morphological analyses was used to examine sympatric populations of Q. petraea and Q. robur at the north-western edge of their ranges in Northern Ireland, since it had previously been suggested that hybridization could facilitate the apparent rapid, long-distance dispersal of oaks following the glaciations.

METHODS: Samples were collected from 24 sites across Northern Ireland that had been previously designated as ancient or semi-natural woodland. Genotypes were obtained from a total of 950 trees using 12 nuclear microsatellite loci, and admixture coefficients were calculated based on a Bayesian clustering approach. Individuals were also classified as Q. petraea,Q. robur or hybrids based on two objective morphometric characters shown previously to delineate pure individuals effectively. Genetically 'pure' individuals of both species, as defined by the Bayesian clustering, were also genotyped for five chloroplast microsatellites.

KEY RESULTS: Genetic and morphological analyses both indicated the presence of pure individuals of both species, as well as a continuum of intermediates. There was a good agreement between the molecular and morphological classification, with a generally clear separation between pure individuals.

CONCLUSIONS: Despite millennia of hybridization and introgression, genetically and morphologically pure individuals of both Q. petraea and Q. robur can be found at the edge of their range, where both species occur sympatrically. The high proportion of individuals exhibiting introgression compared with previous studies may reflect the historical role of hybridization in facilitating dispersal following the glaciations. This is further supported by the significantly higher chloroplast diversity in Q. robur compared with Q. petraea.

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