Genetic change following fire in populations of a seed-banking perennial plant

Rebecca W. Dolan, Butler University


Disturbances such as fire have the potential to remove genetic variation, but seed banks may counter this loss by restoring alleles through a reservoir effect. We used allozyme analysis to characterize genetic change in two populations of the perennial Hypericum cumulicola, an endemic of the fire-prone Florida scrub. We assessed genetic variation before and one, two, and three years after fire that killed nearly all above ground plants. Populations increased in size following fire, with most seedlings likely recruited from a persistent seed bank. Four of five loci were variable. Most alleles were present in low frequencies, but our large sample sizes allowed detection of significant trends. Expected heterozygosity increased, and allele presence and allele frequencies showed marked shifts following fire. The post-fire seedling cohort contained new alleles to the study and one new allele to the species. Population differentiation between the two study sites did not change. Our study is the first to directly document genetic changes following fire, a dominant ecological disturbance worldwide, and is also one of the few to consider shifts in a naturally recruiting post-disturbance seedling cohort. We demonstrate the potential of seed banks to restore genetic variation lost between disturbances. Our study demonstrates that rapid genetic change can occur with disturbance and that fire can have positive effects on the genetics of rare species.