Genetic diversity and structure of populations at the edge of the species’ spatial distribution are important for potential adaptation to environmental changes and consequently, for the long-term survival of the species. Here, we combined classical population genetic methods with newly developed network analyses to gain complementary insights into the genetic structure and diversity of Acacia tortilis, a keystone desert tree, at the northern edge of its global distribution, where the population is under threat from climatic, ecological, and anthropogenic changes. We sampled A. tortilis from 14 sites along the Dead Sea region and the Arava Valley in Israel and in Jordan. In addition, we obtained samples from Egypt and Sudan, the hypothesized origin of the species. Samples from all sites were genotyped using six polymorphic microsatellite loci.Our results indicate a significant genetic structure in A. tortilis along the Arava Valley. This was detected at different hierarchical levels—from the basic unit of the subpopulation, corresponding to groups of trees within ephemeral rivers (wadis), to groups of subpopulations (communities) that are genetically more connected relative to others. The latter structure mostly corresponds to the partition of the major drainage basins in the area. Network analyses, combined with classical methods, allowed for the identification of key A. tortilis subpopulations in this region, characterized by their relatively high level of genetic diversity and centrality in maintaining gene flow in the population. Characterizing such key subpopulations may enable conservation managers to focus their efforts on certain subpopulations that might be particularly important for the population’s long-term persistence, thus contributing to species conservation within its peripheral range.
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