Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Learning a little about ecological restoration from Pygmy Possums

The restoration industry in Australia of the last 30 yrs has been dominated by the 'local is best' philosophy when it comes to thinking about what to replant at a revegetation site. Here, the use of local-collected seed has been promoted because of the belief that local provenance equates to offspring that are likely to be better-adapted to the site and hence, will outperform non-local ecotypes. It also has the added benefit of conserving local genes that might otherwise be lost as species diminish in the local landscape. This may be true, although there is conflicting scientific evidence on this topic. Locally collected seed for example, if derived from small populations, might have low genetic diversity and fitness may be compromised because of inbreeding depression.

But even if inbreeding depression is not a problem, is this philosophy going to deliver us the restored ecosystems of the future?

The prospect of rapid climate change should, I believe, make us consider shifting the local provenance paradigm in restoration ecology, particularly in highly fragmented landscapes where there is probably zero chance of natural gene flow and species migrations. While plants grown from locally collected seed are often better adapted to local abiotic conditions, uncertainty lingers over their suitability for restoration under climate change. It may be better to source seeds from climates that more closely match the predicted future climate of the restoration project, e.g. to source seeds from drier, warmer climates if the local climate is predicted to dry and warm. To do this will entail a massive shift in thinking, one that is likely to take some time.

One of the biggest perceived problems about introducing non-local propagules to restoration sites is the idea that it will lead to outbreeding depression. In short, outbreeding depression is when offspring from crosses between individuals from different populations (i.e. the 'local' and 'new' populations) have lower fitness than progeny from crosses between individuals from the same population. Hence, there has been a reluctance to mix genotypes because of unknown effects of such mixed matings.  Some people also think that the mixing of genotypes in this way reduces the distinct characteristics of the populations involved, and should therefore be avoided. Outbreeding depression won't be a problem if you are bringing seeds of species to new areas where the species currently doesn't exist. It only applies if you bring new genotypes (perhaps dry adapted ones) in contact with local genotypes.

But this may not always be a problem.

Dr Dean Heinze and a Mountain Pygmy Possum
at Mt Buller
An outstanding example of introducing new / novel genes into a gene pool has undoubtedly been responsible for saving the Mountain Pygmy Possum at Mt Buller. Ian Mansergh and co-workers recently reported on this incredible story of population recovery that is strongly underpinned by conservation genetics.

The Mountain Pygmy Possum (Burramys parvus) population at Mt Buller was about 300 in 1996 but dropped to 30 by 2009. It was on the path to local extinction.  The population had extremely low genetic diversity, offspring fitness was low (babies were small and had high rates of mortality) and there were few males in the population.

The solution was simple. Introduce new animals (with a different suite of genes from the local population) to improve the genetic basis of the species at Mt Buller, even if that meant "mixing" two genotypes that have been separated in space for thousands of years. The introduction of new genetic material to Mt Buller from a population more than 100 km away (the world's biggest Pygmy Possum population at Mt Hotham) has rescued this population from almost certain extinction. Half of the Mt Buller population now contains genes from the Mt Hotham population; the genetic variation has doubled. In addition, because of this genetic shift, the population size has more than tripled since 2009 and male survival has dramatically increased.

So why do we fear outbreeding depression so much?

We have long recognised that populations differ genetically, and often those differences provide adaptations to local conditions. The best scenario is usually seen as preserving genetic diversity between populations. But the evidence is that outbreeding depression is rare. In conservation genetics, it is understood that outbreeding depression can be temporary. When co-adapted gene complexes are disrupted, fitness declines are inevitable but short-lived. Natural selection soon acts on the new genetic opportunities and populations bounce back. With new genetic material, the population may be able to face the new challenges of climate uncertainty.

The recovery of the Mountain Pygmy Possum population at Mt. Buller is a good news story and one that should be celebrated. And it possibly has implications for thinking about restoration of systems elsewhere. Given the dramatic loss of native vegetation in southern Australia, the creation of small and isolated remnants, and the rapid warming and drying of much of the landscape, restoration that thinks about "future proofing" our native species and ecosystems might consider more than the local proximity as the sole rationale for seed collection. One might be drawn to ask: is local species extinction preferable than the introduction of novel genes that enable regional species survival?

Further Reading
Mansergh, Heinze, Weeks and Perrin  (2013)  Gene-pool mixing: Lessons from the high country.  Wildlife Australia 50, No. 4, Dec 2013: 32-35.


Chris F said...
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Chris F said...

Hi John,
It is good to see this topic surface more regularly as I believe too many people of influence haven't seriously considered the impacts of inbreeding depression and the effects of climate change. It is unfortunate to think we might be going to great effort and expense to revegetate with a seriously limited gene pool. I know from experience that many of our clients insist on using "local provenance" material, even if sourced from small fragmented remnants of vegetation. The next question is where from and how far away is acceptable?