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Does higher connectivity lead to higher genetic diversity? Effects of habitat fragmentation on genetic variation and population structure in a gypsophile

Gómez-Fernández, Alicia, Alcocer, Irene, Matesanz, Silvia
Conservation genetics 2016 v.17 no.3 pp. 631-641
Lepidium, alleles, gene flow, genetic markers, genetic variation, gypsum, habitat fragmentation, habitats, heterozygosity, inbreeding, landscapes, outcrossing, population size, population structure, variance, Spain
Habitat fragmentation is a major threat to the maintenance of genetic diversity in many plant populations. Genetic effects of population size have received far more attention than the effects of isolation—or connectivity—but both are key components of the fragmentation process. To analyze the consequences of fragment size and connectivity on the neutral genetic variation and population genetic structure of the dominant gypsophile Lepidium subulatum, we selected 20 fragments along two continuous gradients of size and degree of isolation in a fragmented gypsum landscape of Central Spain. We used eight polymorphic microsatellite markers, and analyzed a total of 344 individuals. Populations were characterized by high levels of genetic diversity and low inbreeding coefficients, which agrees with the mainly outcrossing system of L. subulatum and its high abundance in gypsum landscapes. Bayesian clustering methods, pairwise F ST values and analysis of molecular variance revealed low among-population differentiation, with no significant isolation by distance. However, several genetic diversity indices such as allelic richness, number of effective alleles, expected heterozygosity and number of private alleles were negatively related to population isolation. The higher genetic diversity found on more connected fragments suggests higher rates of gene flow among more connected populations. Overall, our results highlight that fragmentation can have important effects on intra-population genetic processes even for locally abundant, dominant species. This, together with previously documented effects of connectivity on fitness of gypsophile species highlights the importance of including habitat connectivity in management and conservation strategies of this type of semiarid systems.