Individualistic evolutionary responses of Central African rain forest plants to Pleistocene climatic fluctuations

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Dec 4:202001018. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2001018117. Online ahead of print.


Understanding the evolutionary dynamics of genetic diversity is fundamental for species conservation in the face of climate change, particularly in hyper-diverse biomes. Species in a region may respond similarly to climate change, leading to comparable evolutionary dynamics, or individualistically, resulting in dissimilar patterns. The second-largest expanse of continuous tropical rain forest (TRF) in the world is found in Central Africa. Here, present-day patterns of genetic structure are thought to be dictated by repeated expansion and contraction of TRFs into and out of refugia during Pleistocene climatic fluctuations. This refugia model implies a common response to past climate change. However, given the unrivalled diversity of TRFs, species could respond differently because of distinct environmental requirements or ecological characteristics. To test this, we generated genome-wide sequence data for >700 individuals of seven codistributed plants from Lower Guinea in Central Africa. We inferred species’ evolutionary and demographic histories within a comparative phylogeographic framework. Levels of genetic structure varied among species and emerged primarily during the Pleistocene, but divergence events were rarely concordant. Demographic trends ranged from repeated contraction and expansion to continuous growth. Furthermore, patterns in genetic variation were linked to disparate environmental factors, including climate, soil, and habitat stability. Using a strict refugia model to explain past TRF dynamics is too simplistic. Instead, individualistic evolutionary responses to Pleistocene climatic fluctuations have shaped patterns in genetic diversity. Predicting the future dynamics of TRFs under climate change will be challenging, and more emphasis is needed on species ecology to better conserve TRFs worldwide.

PMID:33277432 | DOI:10.1073/pnas.2001018117