Bridging the gap between ecophysiological and genetic knowledge to assess the adaptive potential of European beech

K. Kramer, J. Buiteveld, M. Forstreuter, T. Geburek, S. Leonardi, P. Menozzi, F. Povillon, M.J. Schelhaas, E. Teissier du Cros, G.G. Vendramin, D.C. van der Werf

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In this study we aimed to combine knowledge of the ecophysiology and genetics of European beech to assess the potential of this species to adapt to environmental change. Therefore, we performed field and experimental studies on the genetic and ecophysiological functioning of beech. This information was integrated through a coupled genetic¿ecophysiological model for individual trees that was parameterized with information derived from our own studies or from the literature. Using the model, we evaluated the adaptive response of beech stands in two ways: firstly, through sensitivity analyses (of initial genetic diversity, pollen dispersal distance, heritability of selected phenotypic traits, and forest management, representing disturbances) and secondly, through the evaluation of the responses of phenotypic traits and their genetic diversity to four management regimes applied to 10 study plots distributed over Western Europe. The model results indicate that the interval between recruitment events strongly affects the rate of adaptive response, because selection is most severe during the early stages of forest development. Forest management regimes largely determine recruitment intervals and thereby the potential for adaptive responses. Forest management regimes also determine the number of mother trees that contribute to the next generation and thereby the genetic variation that is maintained. Consequently, undisturbed forests maintain the largest amount of genetic variation, as recruitment intervals approach the longevity of trees and many mother trees contribute to the next generation. However, undisturbed forests have the slowest adaptive response, for the same reasons. Gene flow through pollen dispersal may compensate for the loss in genetic diversity brought about by selection. The sensitivity analysis showed that the total genetic diversity of a 2 ha stand is not affected by gene flow if the pollen distance distribution is varied from highly left-skewed to almost flat. However, a stand with a prevailing short-distance gene flow has a more pronounced spatial genetic structure than stands with equal short- and long-distance gene flows. The build-up of a spatial genetic structure is also strongly determined by the recruitment interval. Overall, the modelling results indicate that European beech has high adaptive potential to environmental change if recruitment intervals are short and many mother trees contribute to the next generation. The findings have two implications for modelling studies on the impacts of climate change on forests. Firstly: it cannot be taken for granted that parameter values remain constant over a time horizon of even a few generations ¿ this is particularly important for threshold values subject to strong selection, like budburst, frost hardiness, drought tolerance, as used in species area models. Secondly: forest management should be taken into account in future assessments, as management affects the rate of adaptive response and thereby the response on trees and forests to environmental change, and because few forests are unmanaged. We conclude that a coupled ecophysiological and quantitative genetic tree model is a useful tool for such studies
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)333-353
JournalEcological Modelling
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • fagus-sylvatica l.
  • mating system parameters
  • natural-populations
  • shade tolerance
  • climate-change
  • postglacial recolonization
  • species distribution
  • british beechwoods
  • field-measurements
  • ecological theory


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