The current global rate of plant extinction far outstrips background extinction rates linked to increasing pressure from drivers such as invasive species, habitat loss and human induced climate change. The impact of these pressures on tree species and forest ecosystems is of particular significance given their intrinsic biodiversity value and the associated services they provide, such as climate change mitigation through carbon capture, habitat refuge for endangered species, and vital role in management of water catchments. Resilient forests are at the heart of the battle against human mediated habitat loss, to prevent extinction, and to achieve sustainable livelihoods. For forests to be sustainable in the long term and survive the multiple stressors they face, the adaptive potential of key tree species must be realised, a process that forest managers can facilitate. However, for such strategies to be grounded in science, the molecular, morphological, physiological and ecological diversity between and within populations needs to be quantified. With these data in hand, the following key questions can be addressed:
– How much adaptive diversity do species and populations exhibit?
– What is the strength of climate in determining adaptive potential?
– What role does hybridisation play in adaptive potential?
– What is the role of environmental and ecological drivers in determining adaptive potential?
Model species are an essential tool to answer such questions. Birches (Betula spp.) are an core component of Scottish forests, often seen as pioneer species and a key component of tree planting mixes. Understanding the extent of adaptation and by extension, what constitutes “good quality” seed, is essential to inform planting programmes and ensure the sustainability of populations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some “certified” birch seed orchards are a mix of two native Birch species – B. pendula and B. pubescens yet the implications of this for the success of plantings and the preservation of adaptive potential remain unknown. Evidence exists for local adaptation in B. pendula but the extent of adaptation in B. pubescens has not been studied. In addition, the two species hybridise, which may provide an extra, as-yet unstudied mechanism for adaptive change and as B. pendula is diploid (2n=28) and B. pubescens tetraploid (2n=56), cytological studies can be used to detect hybridisation.
This project would centre around the following research objectives, whilst providing sufficient flexibility to allow the successful candidate to incorporate their own interests and expertise.
– Resolve the B. pendula and B. pubescens genetic-ecological boundary using flow cytometry, morphometrics, molecular biology in wild populations and common garden studies.
– Test the impact of seed orchard approaches on fitness in different environments, i.e. does genetic mixing between provenances from different latitudes reduce the mean fitness of progeny in the field, and common garden experiments using controlled crosses.
– Detail barriers to breeding: what determines the success or failure of interspecific crosses?
– Assess the role of hybridisation in maintaining or eroding adaptive potential.
– Quantify the degree of ecological separation among Betula species and their hybrids.