Anthropogenic alterations of genetic diversity within tree populations: Implications for forest ecosystem resilience

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Healthy forests provide many of the essential ecosystem services upon which all life depends. Genetic diversity is an essential component of long-term forest health because it provides a basis for adaptation and resilience to environmental stress and change. In addition to natural processes, numerous anthropogenic factors deplete forest genetic resources. Genetic losses could be particularly consequential now because robust resilience is needed to respond to a growing number, variety, and frequency of stress exposures. Silvicultural management that selectively removes trees (and their genes) from forests may be another force reshaping forest gene pools. Although data concerning the influence of silvicultural management on genetic resources in temperate forests is somewhat mixed, through the genetic assessment of long-term silvicultural treatments within an eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) forest, and computer-based simulated harvests of a genetically mapped eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) stand, we found that the selective removal of trees can alter gene frequencies. Due to an association with phenotypic characteristics used to guide harvests, the frequencies of rare alleles appeared particularly vulnerable to manipulation. Depending on the selection criteria used, rare allele frequencies either remained steady, decreased, or increased relative to study controls. Although harvest-associated genetic losses are possible, our data suggests that management can also sustain or enhance genetic richness. Similar to studies within temperate ecosystems, recent research in tropical forests underscores the potential influence of harvesting on the genetics of tree populations. In addition to efforts to reduce controllable sources of ecosystem stress (e.g., high pollutant exposures), management options should be evaluated that may bolster forest ecosystem resilience by preserving levels of genetic diversity within forests.

Publication Title, e.g., Journal

Forest Ecology and Management