Journal Article

Unravelling genetics at the top: mountain islands or isolated belts?

Alfredo García-Fernández, Jose Gabriel Segarra-Moragues, Alex Widmer, Adrian Escudero and José María Iriondo

in Annals of Botany

Published on behalf of The Annals of Botany Company

Volume 110, issue 6, pages 1221-1232
Published in print November 2012 | ISSN: 0305-7364
Published online September 2012 | e-ISSN: 1095-8290 | DOI:
Unravelling genetics at the top: mountain islands or isolated belts?

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  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Plant Sciences and Forestry


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Background and Aims

In mountain plant populations, local adaptation has been described as one of the main responses to climate warming, allowing plants to persist under stressful conditions. This is especially the case for marginal populations at their lowest elevation, as they are highly vulnerable. Adequate levels of genetic diversity are required for selection to take place, while high levels of altitudinal gene flow are seen as a major limiting factor potentially precluding local adaptation processes. Thus, a compromise between genetic diversity and gene flow seems necessary to guarantee persistence under oncoming conditions. It is therefore critical to determine if gene flow occurs preferentially between mountains at similar altitudinal belts, promoting local adaptation at the lowest populations, or conversely along altitude within each mountain.


Microsatellite markers were used to unravel genetic diversity and population structure, inbreeding and gene flow of populations at two nearby altitudinal gradients of Silene ciliata, a Mediterranean high-mountain cushion plant.

Key Results

Genetic diversity and inbreeding coefficients were similar in all populations. Substantial gene flow was found both along altitudinal gradients and horizontally within each elevation belt, although greater values were obtained along altitudinal gradients. Gene flow may be responsible for the homogeneous levels of genetic diversity found among populations. Bayesian cluster analyses also suggested that shifts along altitudinal gradients are the most plausible scenario.


Past population shifts associated with glaciations and interglacial periods in temperate mountains may partially explain current distributions of genetic diversity and population structure. In spite of the predominance of gene flow along the altitudinal gradients, local genetic differentiation of one of the lower populations together with the detection of one outlier locus might support the existence of different selection forces at low altitudes.

Keywords: Gene flow; genetic variation; glacial refuge; local adaptation; mountain plant; altitudinal range; Silene ciliata; Caryophyllaceae

Journal Article.  8413 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Ecology and Conservation ; Evolutionary Biology ; Plant Sciences and Forestry

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