Genomic diversity guides conservation strategies among rare terrestrial orchid species when taxonomy remains uncertain

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Abstract

Background and Aims

Species are often used as the unit for conservation, but may not be suitable for species complexes where taxa are difficult to distinguish. Under such circumstances, it may be more appropriate to consider species groups or populations as evolutionarily significant units (ESUs). A population genomic approach was employed to investigate the diversity within and among closely related species to create a more robust, lineage-specific conservation strategy for a nationally endangered terrestrial orchid and its relatives from south-eastern Australia.

Methods

Four putative species were sampled from a total of 16 populations in the Victorian Volcanic Plain (VVP) bioregion and one population of a sub-alpine outgroup in south-eastern Australia. Morphological measurements were taken in situ along with leaf material for genotyping by sequencing (GBS) and microsatellite analyses.

Key Results

Species could not be differentiated using morphological measurements. Microsatellite and GBS markers confirmed the outgroup as distinct, but only GBS markers provided resolution of population genetic structure. The nationally endangered Diuris basaltica was indistinguishable from two related species (D. chryseopsis and D. behrii), while the state-protected D. gregaria showed genomic differentiation.

Conclusions

Genomic diversity identified among the four Diuris species suggests that conservation of this taxonomically complex group will be best served by considering them as one ESU rather than separately aligned with species as currently recognized. This approach will maximize evolutionary potential among all species during increased isolation and environmental change. The methods used here can be applied generally to conserve evolutionary processes for groups where taxonomic uncertainty hinders the use of species as conservation units.

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