Using multi-species seascape genomics to conserve areas of evolutionary importance

Nielsen, Erica Spotswood (2021-03)

Thesis (PhD)--Stellenbosch University, 2021.


ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Understanding the environmental footprints on species and genetic biodiversity is a key concern in molecular ecology and conservation genetics. As species are increasingly under pressure from anthropogenic climate change, understanding how rapid environmental changes will influence intra- and interspecific diversity is essential if we are to conserve functioning ecosystems. This PhD thesis used the unique environmental backdrop of the South African coastline to infer how environmental variables over space and time shape multiple facets of biological variation. Specifically, this thesis utilised seascape genomic analyses to test the strong environmental gradients within South Africa against the molecular variation of three rocky intertidal species: Cape urchin (Parechinus angulosus), Common shore crab (Cyclograpsus punctatus), and Granular limpet (Scutellastra granularis). The first chapter evaluated which contemporary seascape features most strongly correlate with neutral and adaptive intraspecific diversity across species. Here, the results show that gene-environment relationships are species-specific, with the crab showing less population differentiation, strongly influenced by sea-surface salinity, and the urchin and limpet showing a west-east population differentiation predominantly influenced by sea-surface and air temperature. Chapter Two tested the relative influence of historical climatic stability versus contemporary species distributions in shaping patterns of neutral diversity of the three species. The results from this chapter indicate that historical climatic refugia since the Last Glacial Maximum are potentially stronger predictors of contemporary molecular diversity hotspots than the species’ current distribution. The third research chapter evaluated the vulnerability of the three study species with regards to future climatic change, both at two time-points and under two emission scenarios. Here, the results highlight how future responses to global change will likely differ among species, as well as among populations within each species. In the final chapter, the patterns uncovered in the three data chapters, pertaining to genomic diversity and vulnerability, climatic stability, and adaptive potential, are combined in a conservation planning framework to identify areas of evolutionary importance, which can be thought of as priority areas for forward-thinking conservation action. As a whole, this thesis used novel ecological and evolutionary models to understand the spatio-temporal interplay between species, genes, and environment, and used this information to guide conservation action within South Africa.

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