Small-scale genetic structure and mating patterns in an extensive sessile oak forest (Quercus petraea (Matt.) Liebl.)
Oaks (Quercus) are major components of temperate forest ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere where they form intermediate or climax communities. Sessile oak (Quercus petraea) forests represent the climax vegetation in eastern Germany and western Poland. Here, sessile oak forms pure stands or occurs intermixed with Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). A large body of research is available on gene flow, reproduction dynamics, and genetic structure in fragmented landscapes and mixed populations. At the same time, our knowledge regarding large, contiguous, and monospecific populations is considerably less well developed. Our study is an attempt to further develop our understanding of the reproduction ecology of sessile oak as an ecologically and economically important forest tree by analyzing mating patterns and genetic structure within adult trees and seedlings originating from one or two reproduction events in an extensive, naturally regenerating sessile oak forest. We detected positive spatial genetic structure up to 30 meters between adult trees and up to 40 meters between seedlings. Seed dispersal distances averaged 8.4 meters. Pollen dispersal distances averaged 22.6 meters. In both cases, the largest proportion of the dispersal occurred over short distances. Dispersal over longer distances was more common for pollen but also appeared regularly for seeds. The reproductive success of individual trees was highly skewed. Only 41 percent of all adult trees produced any offspring while the majority did not participate in reproduction. Among those trees that contributed to the analyzed seedling sample, 80 percent contributed 1–3 gametes. Only 20 percent of all parent trees contributed four or more gametes. However, these relatively few most fertile trees contributed 51 percent of all gametes within the seedling sample. Vitality and growth differed significantly between reproducing and nonreproducing adult trees with reproducing trees being more vital and vigorous than nonreproduc-ing individuals. Our study demonstrates that extensive, apparently homogenous oak forests are far from uniform on the genetic level. On the contrary, they form highly complex mosaics of remarkably small local neighborhoods. This counterbalances the levelling effect of long-distance dispersal and may increase the species’ adaptive potential. Incorporating these dynamics in the management, conservation, and restoration of oak forests can support the conservation of forest genetic diversity and assist those forests in coping with environmental change.