, Volume 92, Issue 1-2, pp 45-54

Climatic adaptation of trees: rediscovering provenance tests

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Summary

Common garden testing of populations of different origin started with forest trees more than two hundred years ago. Since then, so-called provenance tests have been established with most commercially important species. Beyond the strictly silvicultural goals, the tests offer excellent opportunities to study intraspecific genetic variation patterns and represent probably the most powerful available tool for testing hypotheses of climatic adaptation in trees.

Analysis of adaptive traits (mostly juvenile height growth) in provenance experiments indicate the existence of very effective constraints on adaptedness. The performance of populations plotted against an ecological-climatic factor exhibits a characteristic pattern and can be described by response functions. The population average of a fitness-related trait for a locally adapted population is often significantly lower than that of populations from other environments; usually the ones from milder climate perform better. The phenomenon is interpreted as adaptation lag. Suboptimal adaptation is compensated by a high level of genetic diversity. Molecular genetic studies confirm the high level of allelic and individual genetic diversity in forest trees. A consequence of individual homeostasis, phenotypic stability of populations is usually also high; the sensitivity to environmental changes is generally moderate. Phenotypically stable populations are valuable not only because of a wider range of potential cultivation but specifically because of a greater ability to adjust to unexpected changes. This trait should receive more attention in the future for obvious reasons.

The maintenance of a high within-population genetic variance is favored by the genetic system of the investigated species (effective gene flow, outbreeding, high genetic load, etc.). Random events and long-lasting biotic interactions are further effects impairing the efficiency of natural selection.

In view of expected climate instability, genetic adaptability of forest trees causes serious concern due to their long lifespan compared to the rapidity of expected changes in environmental conditions. The potential of provenance tests to interpret long-term adaptational processes should be utilized to analyze, model and predict response of trees to climate change. Although seldomly appreciated, provenance research might be among the most important contributions of forestry to biological sciences.