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Genetic and morphological differentiation in Populus nigra L.: isolation by colonization or isolation by adaptation?

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Identifying processes underlying the genetic and morphological differences among populations is a central question of evolutionary biology. Forest trees typically contain high levels of neutral genetic variation, and genetic differences are often correlated with geographic distance between populations [isolation by distance (IBD)] or are due to historic vicariance events [isolation by colonization (IBC)]. In contrast, morphological differences are largely due to local adaptation. Here, we examined genetic (microsatellite) and morphological (from a common garden experiment) variation in Populus nigra L., European black poplar, collected from 13 sites across western Europe and grown in a common garden in Belgium. Significant genetic differentiation was observed, with populations from France displaying greater admixture than the distinct Spanish and central European gene pools, consistent with previously described glacial refugia (IBC). Many quantitative traits displayed a bimodal distribution, approximately corresponding to small-leaf and large-leaf ecotypes. Examination of nine climatic variables revealed the sampling locations to have diverse climates, and although the correlation between morphological and climatic differences was significant, the pattern was not consistent with strict local adaptation. Partial Mantel tests based on multivariate summary statistics identified significant residual correlation in comparisons of small-leaf to large-leaf ecotypes, and within the small-leaf samples, but not within large-leaf ecotypes, indicating that variation within the small-leaf morphotype in particular may be adaptive. Some small-leaf populations experience climates very similar to those in large-leaf sites. We conclude that adaptive differentiation and persistent IBC acted in combination to produce the genetic and morphological patterns observed in P. nigra.

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