Population genetics of the understory fishtail palm Chamaedorea ernesti-augusti in Belize: high genetic connectivity with local differentiation.
BACKGROUND: Developing a greater understanding of population genetic structure in lowland tropical plant species is highly relevant to our knowledge of increasingly fragmented forests and to the conservation of threatened species. Specific studies are particularly needed for taxa whose population dynamics are further impacted by human harvesting practices. One such case is the fishtail or xaté palm (Chamaedorea ernesti-augusti) of Central America, whose wild-collected leaves are becoming progressively more important to the global ornamental industry. We use microsatellite markers to describe the population genetics of this species in Belize and test the effects of climate change and deforestation on its recent and historical effective population size. RESULTS: We found high levels of inbreeding coupled with moderate or high allelic diversity within populations. Overall high gene flow was observed, with a north and south gradient and ongoing differentiation at smaller spatial scales. Immigration rates among populations were more difficult to discern, with minimal evidence for isolation by distance. We infer a tenfold reduction in effective population size ca. 10,000 years ago, but fail to detect changes attributable to Mayan or contemporary deforestation. CONCLUSION: Populations of C. ernesti-augusti are genetically heterogeneous demes at a local spatial scale, but are widely connected at a regional level in Belize. We suggest that the inferred patterns in population genetic structure are the result of the colonization of this species into Belize following expansion of humid forests in combination with demographic and mating patterns. Within populations, we hypothesize that low aggregated population density over large areas, short distance pollen dispersal via thrips, low adult survival, and low fruiting combined with early flowering may contribute towards local inbreeding via genetic drift. Relatively high levels of regional connectivity are likely the result of animal-mediated long-distance seed dispersal. The greatest present threat to the species is the potential onset of inbreeding depression as the result of increased human harvesting activities. Future genetic studies in understory palms should focus on both fine-scale and landscape-level genetic structure.