DOCTORAL DISSERTATION RESEARCH: A genetic approach to dispersal at the alpine treeline ecotone
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This doctoral dissertation research project investigates the importance of seed dispersal at the alpine treeline ecotone. In general, in studies of vegetation transition zones, the question of whether seeds are dispersed locally or arrive from distant populations is critical to our understanding of how such transition zones may change over time. If seeds are only traveling short distances, vegetation can only adapt slowly to changes in environmental conditions. If, however, seeds are traveling long distances, vegetation zones may be able to track a rapidly changing environment more closely. Previously, it has been difficult to determine effective dispersal distances due to challenges in tracking seeds across the landscape. Using molecular genetics techniques, the origin of established individual plants at treeline can be assessed to determine to what degree seed production is a local process or the result of long distance dispersal. This is particularly important when future climates are expected to change much more rapidly than they have in the past, and it is important that researchers understand migration potential of species to predict what future ecosystems may look like. This study will investigate dispersal and flow of genetic information both regional and local scales. The research will integrate a combination of geographic and genetics techniques to test two hypotheses 1) long distance dispersal is occurring at treelines, and 2) clonal reproduction is not the dominant mode of reproduction at treeline populations. Improved understanding of the importance of long distance seed dispersal and the relative abundance of clonal reproduction will be broadly transferrable to other ecotone studies. Furthermore, the incorporation of genetic analyses into a spatial-ecology context will facilitate additional research of this kind in the future.This study is a novel integration of geography and genetics to answer a pertinent set of questions allowing for a deeper understanding of how treelines may migrate under altered climate. Additionally, the results from this study will contribute to a stronger understanding of the influence of seed dispersal on treeline dynamics in general. The dispersal data generated will contribute to improved parameterization of fat tailed dispersal curves that can be used in future research to model migration under changing climate scenarios. The project will also be used to generate additional hypotheses related to dispersal, gene flow, and the importance of landscape configuration and geography on the ability of plants to respond to changing ecosystems. The team will develop a presentation of the study''s findings to present to research and management staff and to the general public at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Kenai Fjords National Park. The team will write an article for the Peninsula Clarion, via the Refuge Notebook column, and will publish in refereed journals to further disseminate their findings. Findings will also be disseminated at conferences and through online data sharing. The project will foster science education and training to an undergraduate at Texas A&M University in both field and laboratory work. Undergraduate involvement will target inclusion of underrepresented groups. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this project will provide support to enable a promising student to establish an independent research career.