Strong natural selection during plant restoration favors an unexpected suite of plant traits

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Abstract

Restoration is an opportunity to study natural selection: One can measure the distribution of traits in source propagules used to found populations, compare this with the distribution of traits in successful recruits, and determine the strength and direction of selection on potentially adaptive traits. We investigated whether natural selection influenced seedling establishment during postfire restoration in the Great Basin, an area where large-scale restoration occurs with a few widely available cultivars planted over a large range of environmental conditions. We collected seeds from established plants of the perennial grass Elymus elymoides ssp. californicus (squirreltail) at two restoration sites and compared the distribution of phenotypic traits of surviving plants with the original pool of restoration seeds. Seeds were planted in common gardens for two generations. Plants grown from seeds that established in the field were a nonrandom subset of the original seeds, with directional selection consistently favoring a correlated suite of traits in both field sites: small plant and seed size, and earlier flowering phenology. These results demonstrate that natural selection can affect restoration establishment in strong and predictable ways and that adaptive traits in these sites were opposite of the current criteria used for selection of restoration material in this system.

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