Genetic legacy of rare dwarf trees is widespread

April 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: Shrubs are cool! They protect permafrost against climate change

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

Related Stories

New genetics project could help save the ash tree

December 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 disease.

Recommended for you

Study suggests fish can experience 'emotional fever'

November 25, 2015

(—A small team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain has found via lab study that at least one type of fish is capable of experiencing 'emotional fever,' which suggests it may qualify as a sentient being. In their ...

New gene map reveals cancer's Achilles heel

November 25, 2015

Scientists have mapped out the genes that keep our cells alive, creating a long-awaited foothold for understanding how our genome works and which genes are crucial in disease like cancer.

How cells in the developing ear 'practice' hearing

November 25, 2015

Before the fluid of the middle ear drains and sound waves penetrate for the first time, the inner ear cells of newborn rodents practice for their big debut. Researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have figured out the molecular ...

How cells 'climb' to build fruit fly tracheas

November 25, 2015

Fruit fly windpipes are much more like human blood vessels than the entryway to human lungs. To create that intricate network, fly embryonic cells must sprout "fingers" and crawl into place. Now researchers at The Johns Hopkins ...


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.