Drivers of strong isolation and small effective population size at a leading range edge of a widespread plant


Climate change has influenced species distributions worldwide with upward elevational shifts observed in many systems. Leading range edge populations, like those at upper elevation limits, are crucial for climate change responses but can exhibit low genetic diversity due to founder effects, isolation, or limited outbreeding. These factors can hamper local adaptation at range limits. Using the widespread herb, Argentina anserina, we measured ecological attributes (population density on the landscape, area of population occupancy, and plant and flower density) spanning a 1000m elevation gradient, with high elevation populations at the range limit. We measured vegetative clonal potential in the greenhouse for populations spanning the gradient. We combined these data with a ddRAD-seq dataset to test the hypotheses that high-elevation populations would exhibit ecological and genomic signatures of leading range edge populations. We found that population density on the landscape declined towards the high elevation limit, as is expected towards range edges. However, plant density was elevated within edge populations. In the greenhouse, high-elevation plants exhibited stronger clonal potential than low-elevation plants, likely explaining increased plant density in the field. Phylogeographic analysis supported more recent colonization of high-elevation populations which were also more genetically isolated, had more extreme heterozygote excess, and had smaller effective population size than low. Results support that colonization of high elevations was likely accompanied by increased asexuality, contributing to a decline in effective population size. Despite high plant density in leading-edge populations, their small effective size, isolation, and clonality could constrain adaptive potential.

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