Continent-Wide Climatic Variation Drives Local Adaptation in North American White Clover

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Abstract

Climate-associated clines in adaptive polymorphisms are commonly cited as evidence of local adaptation within species. However, the contribution of the clinally varying trait to overall fitness is often unknown. To address this question, we examined survival, vegetative growth, and reproductive output in a central US common garden experiment using 161 genotypes of white clover (Trifolium repens L.) originating from 15 locations across North America. White clover is polymorphic for cyanogenesis (hydrogen cyanide release upon tissue damage), a chemical defense against generalist herbivores, and climate-associated cyanogenesis clines have repeatedly evolved across the species range. Over a 12-month experiment, we observed striking correlations between the population of origin and plant performance in the common garden, with climatic distance from the common garden site predicting fitness more accurately than geographic distance. Assessments of herbivore leaf damage over the 2015 growing season indicated marginally lower herbivory on cyanogenic plants; however, this effect did not result in increased fitness in the common garden location. Linear mixed modeling suggested that while cyanogenesis variation had little predictive value for vegetative growth, it is as important as climatic variation for predicting reproductive output in the central United States. Together, our findings suggest that knowledge of climate similarity, as well as knowledge of locally favored adaptive traits, will help to inform transplantation strategies for restoration ecology and other conservation efforts in the face of climate change.

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