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Genetic data confirms field evidence for natural breeding in a wild taro population (Colocasia esculenta) in northern Queensland, Australia

Abstract

Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is a vegetatively propagated, starchy root crop cultivated in tropical to temperate regions of the world. Wild forms of taro are distributed from India to southern China, Australia and Melanesia. They are widely known wild food or fodder sources, including in Aboriginal Australia, so it is unclear to what extent wild populations have been dispersed by humans, or naturally via insect-borne pollen and seed dispersal by birds or other animals. In Australia, pollinators and seedlings of taro have not been reported, and a key question is whether or not the wild taro there can breed naturally. Here we report field observations of flowering, fruit set, and an insect pollinator (Colocasiomyia, pupal stage), in a historically significant wild taro population at Hopevale in northern Queensland. The observed pupa is congeneric with two pollinating fly species that have a highly specialised, probably coevolutionary, relationship with taro in neighbouring Papua New Guinea. The field observations suggested the possibility of natural breeding at Hopevale. By analyzing microsatellite diversity within the Hopevale taro population, we found high genetic variation overall, indicative of multiple founding individuals. Two sublocations showed low genetic diversity and strongly negative inbreeding coefficients, consistent with predominantly clonal (vegetative) reproduction. A third sublocation showed high genetic diversity and a weakly negative inbreeding coefficient, indicative of sexual reproduction. This difference between sublocations may relate to microenvironmental conditions that favour seedling establishment in some parts of the site. The data constitute the first demonstration that natural breeding and population spread occurs in Australian wild taro.

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Acknowledgments

For supporting this research (1985-1990), special thanks are given to the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Hopevale Community, Department of Agriculture at Lae Technical University (Lae, PNG), National Agricultural Research Institute (Bubia, PNG), the Australian National University (Canberra), and the Australian National Botanic Gardens (Canberra). Valuable advice and supervision were provided by D. Coates, J. Golson, D. Shaw, and D. E. Yen (ANU). Help in the field was provided by K. Thiele (ANU), Eric Deeral (Hopevale), and P. Lea (Lae Technical University). K. Ikeya (National Museum of Ethnology, Japan), kindly provided the sample from Bangladesh. Analyses for the present paper were assisted and supported by Nick Porch (ANU), and the John Bingham Laboratory, NIAB, Cambridge, UK. HVH is funded by the European Research Council project ‘Food Globalization in Prehistory’.

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Correspondence to Harriet V. Hunt.

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Hunt, H.V., Moots, H.M. & Matthews, P.J. Genetic data confirms field evidence for natural breeding in a wild taro population (Colocasia esculenta) in northern Queensland, Australia. Genet Resour Crop Evol 60, 1695–1707 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10722-012-9952-1

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Keywords

  • Breeding population
  • Clonal reproduction
  • Colocasia
  • Colocasiomyia
  • Pollinator
  • Wild taro