Genetic consequences of glacial survival: The late Quaternary history of balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera L.) in North America

Amy L. Breen, David F. Murray, Matthew S. Olson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Aim Beringia, the unglaciated region encompassing the former Bering land bridge, as well as the land between the Lena and Mackenzie rivers, is recognized as an important refugium for arctic plants during the last ice age. Compelling palaeobotanical evidence also supports the presence of small populations of boreal trees within Beringia during the Last Glacial Maximum. The occurrence of balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) in Beringia provides a unique opportunity to assess the implications of persistence in a refugium on present-day genetic diversity for this boreal tree species. Location North America. Methods We sequenced three variable non-coding regions of the chloroplast genome (cpDNA) from 40 widely distributed populations of balsam poplar across its North American range. We assessed patterns of genetic diversity, geographic structure and historical demography between glaciated and unglaciated regions of the balsam poplar's range. We also utilized a coalescent model to test for divergence between regions. Results Levels of genetic diversity were consistently greater for populations at the southern margin (θ W=0.00122) than in the central (θ W=0.00086) or northern (θ W=0.00034) regions of the current distribution of balsam poplar, and diversity decreased with increasing latitude (R 2=0.49, P<0.01). We detected low, but significant, structure (F CT=0.05, P=0.05), among regions of P. balsamifera's distribution. The cpDNA genealogy was shallow, however, showing an absence of highly differentiated chloroplast haplotypes. Coalescent analyses supported a model of divergence between the southern ice margin and the northern unglaciated region of balsam poplar's distribution, but analyses of other regional comparisons did not converge. Main conclusions The palaeobotanical record supports the presence of a Beringian refugium for balsam poplar, but we were unable to definitively identify the presence of known refugial populations based on genetic data alone. Balsam poplar populations from Beringia are not a significant reservoir of cpDNA diversity today. Unique alleles that may have been present in the small, isolated populations that survived within Beringia were probably lost through genetic drift or swamped by post-glacial, northward migration from populations south of the ice sheets.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)918-928
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2012


  • Beringia
  • Boreal trees
  • Chloroplast DNA
  • Glacial refugium
  • Phylogeography
  • Populus balsamifera


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