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Evidence of past forest fragmentation in the Congo Basin from the phylogeography of a shade-tolerant tree with limited seed dispersal: Scorodophloeus zenkeri (Fabaceae, Detarioideae)

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Background Comparative phylogeographic studies on rainforest species that are widespread in Central Africa often reveal genetic discontinuities within and between biogeographic regions, indicating (historical) barriers to gene flow, possibly due to repeated and/or long-lasting population fragmentation during glacial periods according to the forest refuge hypothesis. The impact of forest fragmentation seems to be modulated by the ecological amplitude and dispersal capacities of each species, resulting in different demographic histories. Moreover, while multiple studies investigated the western part of Central Africa (Lower Guinea), few have sufficiently sampled the heart of the Congo Basin (Congolia). In this study, we look for genetic discontinuities between populations of the widespread tropical tree Scorodophloeus zenkeri Harms (Fabaceae, Detarioideae) in Central Africa. Additionally, we characterize genetic diversity, selfing rate and fine-scale spatial genetic structure within populations to estimate the gene dispersal capacity of the species. Results Clear intraspecific genetic discontinuities occur throughout the species' distribution range, with two genetic clusters in Congolia and four in Lower Guinea, and highest differentiation occurring between these bioregions. Genetic diversity is higher in Lower Guinea than Congolia. A spatial genetic structure characteristic of isolation by distance occurs within the genetic clusters. This allowed us to estimate gene dispersal distances (sigma(g)) for this outcrossing species with ballistic seed dispersal, which range between 100 and 250 m in areas where S. zenkeri occurs in high densities, and are in the low range of sigma(g) values compared to other tropical trees. Gene dispersal distances are larger in low density populations, probably due to extensive pollen dispersal capacity. Conclusions Fragmentation of S. zenkeri populations seems to have occurred not only in Lower Guinea but also in the Congo Basin, though not necessarily according to previously postulated forest refuge areas. The lower genetic diversity in Congolia compared to Lower Guinea parallels the known gradient of species diversity, possibly reflecting a stronger impact of past climate changes on the forest cover in Congolia. Despite its bisexual flowers, S. zenkeri appears to be mostly outcrossing. The limited dispersal observed in this species implies that genetic discontinuities resulting from past forest fragmentation can persist for a long time before being erased by gene flow.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEcology and Evolution
Volume21
Issue number1
ISSN2730-7182
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2021
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