Widespread inbreeding and unexpected geographic patterns of genetic variation in eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), an imperiled North American conifer
Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis [L.] Carr.) is an ecologically important tree species experiencing severe mortality across much of its eastern North American distribution, caused by infestation of the exotic hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae Annand). To guide gene conservation strategies for this imperiled conifer, we conducted a range-wide genetic variation study for eastern hemlock, amplifying 13 highly polymorphic nuclear microsatellite loci in 1,180 trees across 60 populations. The results demonstrate that eastern hemlock exhibits moderate inbreeding, possibly a signature of a prehistoric decline associated with a widespread insect outbreak. Contrary to expectations, populations in formerly glaciated regions are not less genetically diverse than in the putative southern refugial region. As expected, peripheral disjunct populations are less genetically diverse than main-range populations, but some are highly genetically differentiated or contain unique alleles. Spatially explicit Bayesian clustering analyses suggest that three or four Pleistocene glacial refuges may have existed in the Southeastern United States, with a main post-glacial movement into the Northeast and the Great Lakes region. Efforts to conserve eastern hemlock genetic material should emphasize the capture of broad adaptability that occurs across the geographic range of the species, as well as genetic variability within regions with the highest allelic richness and heterozygosity, such as the Southern Appalachians and New England, and within disjunct populations that are genetically distinct. Much genetic variation exists in areas both infested and uninfested by the adelgid.