Genetic legacy of rare dwarf trees is widespread

Apr 25, 2014

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London have found genetic evidence that one of Britain's native tree species, the dwarf birch found in the Scottish Highlands, was once common in England.

Genes from were found in birch tree populations across Britain, which reflects a much wider distribution occupied by the "wee tree" when the British climate was colder.

"We seem to have found genetic footprints of the retreat of dwarf birch into its current refuges in the Scottish Highlands," said Dr Richard Buggs, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, who led the research.

"As dwarf birch moved north, some of its genes were picked up by downy birch trees, which spread through Britain at the cost of dwarf birch. The two species cross-pollinated in many parts of Britain after the last glacial maximum as the climate warmed and ice age glaciers melted away."

Co-author and PhD student Nian Wang adds: "Our genetic results fit well with the fact that from dwarf birch has been found in parts of England and Wales. As global warming continues, stray genes and fossils could be all that is left of dwarf birch in Britain."

The current scarcity of dwarf birch seems to be a combination of the effects of , deer grazing and burning plants and trees on moors.

Another risk the study highlights is hybridisation or cross-breeding. Richard Nichols, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at QMUL points out: "We suspect that the influx of pollen from other birch species is actively harmful to the dwarf populations, especially since the larger trees produce much more pollen."

The study has good news for conservation groups planting dwarf birch. By using computer models to predict ecological niches, the scientists identified many areas where dwarf birch could potentially grow under current climates.

Explore further: Birch Communications buying Cbeyond for $323M

More information: The study is published in the journal Molecular Ecology today (Friday 25 April)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Birch helps wounds heals faster

Jan 24, 2014

Extracts from the birch tree have served for centuries as a traditional means of helping the damaged skin around wounds to regenerate more quickly. Prof. Dr. Irmgard Merfort from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences of ...

New genetics project could help save the ash tree

Dec 21, 2012

A Queen Mary scientist will embark on a new project to decode the ash tree's entire genetic sequence in the hope of stopping Britain's trees from being completely devastated by the Chalara ash dieback fungal ...

Recommended for you

Study finds tropical fish moving into temperate waters

Dec 19, 2014

Tropical herbivorous fish are beginning to expand their range into temperate waters – likely as a result of climate change – and a new international study documents the dramatic impact of the intrusion ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.