Assessing Niche Dynamics and Population Connectivity in an Endangered Tree Species, Emmenopterys henryi: Implications for Conservation and Management

Assessing Niche Dynamics and Population Connectivity in an Endangered Tree Species, Emmenopterys henryi: Implications for Conservation and Management

1. Introduction

The intensifying impacts of climate change are pervasive across multiple levels of ecosystems [1,2], thereby affecting not only species demography and dispersal, which are the cornerstones of short-term recovery, but also genetic diversity and metapopulation structure, which are critical for longer-term recovery and adaptation [3,4]. Empirical evidence has indicated that recurrent climate disturbances might severely affect the reproductive capacity and strength of the genetic connectivity of species or even erode population resilience [5,6,7], potentially leading to local extinction and jeopardizing ecosystem function [8,9,10,11]. In the face of global climate change, ecological niche models (ENMs) have emerged as cost-effective tools for assessing climate change impacts on the range dynamics of species [12,13], guiding conservation interventions for at-risk species [14], testing ecological hypotheses [15], and predicting the maladaptation risk of species [16]. Traditional ENMs usually assume genetic uniformity throughout species’ entire ranges, neglecting the considerable potential for local adaptation to unique biotic and abiotic pressures within different populations [17,18]. However, empirical studies have demonstrated that integrating genetic variability and population structure into ENMs significantly enhances their predictive capacity regarding range dynamics [17,19,20]. Therefore, incorporating insights from population structure and/or phylogenetic relationships into ENMs is crucial and should be a top priority when deciphering niche dynamics and projecting species range shifts in response to anticipated climate change using ENMs [18,20]. Omitting this information can lead to inaccurate assessments of sub-taxon niche variation and biased interpretations, especially for populations or intraspecific lineages occupying distinct habitats [21,22].
Although species attempt to track their optimal climatic niches by shifting their ranges in response to changing climates, climate change has already posed numerous challenges to the genetic connectivity of several organisms [23]. Robust habitat connectivity is paramount in enabling species to track suitable areas that can support large, genetically diverse populations, thereby bolstering their adaptive potential in a changing climate [23,24]. When implementing management strategies for at-risk species, understanding the magnitude of population connectivity is critical. It informs the identification of key habitats and corridors connecting populations, sheds light on the possible impact of human activities on these vital connections, guides reintroduction and translocation efforts, and ultimately aids in formulating substantial strategies aimed at maintaining genetic diversity and species persistence [25,26,27,28]. Within the existing range of a species, strong population connectivity may manifest as climate stability compared to regions with weak or absent linkages, which are known as climate change refugia [29,30]. The magnitude of the threat posed by climate change to a specific linkage can direct conservation efforts towards that linkage, including the maintenance and enhancement of existing connectivity, the implementation of adaptation strategies such as assisted migration, or the establishment of alternative linkages in regions with elevated threat levels [31,32]. It is worth noting that habitat connectivity and dispersal corridors are unique for most species [23,33]. Therefore, deciphering the extent and patterns of population connectivity is paramount in determining tailored conservation actions for a given species.
In this study, we focus on Emmenopterys henryi, a remarkably widespread Tertiary relict and endangered species that predominantly inhabits montane warm-temperate deciduous (WTD) forests in subtropical China [34,35], indicating its remarkable adaptability to diverse environments. This stately canopy tree stands as the sole survivor of a once extensive and species-rich genus that flourished in the boreotropical floras of North America and Eurasia [36]. Empirical studies of E. henryi have predominantly focused on various aspects, including community structure [37], population dynamics [38], genetic differentiation [39], demographic history [40], and reproductive capacity [38]. However, the current distribution of E. henryi in China is becoming increasingly fragmented and diminished, primarily due to anthropogenic factors such as overlogging, tourism, and habitat loss [37]. To date, several ecological studies have been undertaken to comprehend and identify the underlying factors responsible for the endangered status of E. henryi within natural populations [41] and references therein. These investigations aim to shed light on the critical ecological and anthropogenic pressures facing this exceptional tree species, with the ultimate goal of informing conservation efforts and ensuring its long-term persistence. Although a previous study illuminated the existence of two distinctive intraspecific lineages within this species based on three cpDNA markers and then further predicted its range dynamics under alternative climates [40], the niche dynamics and patterns of population connectivity below the species level remain elusive. This lack of clarity poses a considerable hindrance to implementing effective management interventions for this species.

Here, we aim to bridge the gaps by addressing range and niche dynamics and exploring patterns of population connectivity within and between the two intraspecific lineages of E. henryi. Specifically, we harnessed an ensemble modeling approach to approximate the potential ranges of this species and its intraspecific lineages under current climates. Subsequently, we employed the PCA-env method to evaluate the niche dynamics between these closely related lineages. Finally, following the framework of landscape genetics, we evaluated the magnitude of genetic connectivity within and between the two intraspecific lineages. Our findings are anticipated to offer a multifaceted perspective on niche dynamics and population connectivity within E. henryi, thereby providing deeper insights that can inform conservation decision-making and management interventions for this species.

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