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Microclimate predicts frost-hardiness of alpine Arabidopsis thaliana populations better than altitude because the microclimate effect increases with altitude
In mountain regions average temperatures decrease at higher altitudes. In addition, microenvironmental conditions can strongly affect microclimate and may counteract average effects of altitude. We investigated winter frost hardiness of Arabidopsis thaliana accessions originating from 13 sites along altitudinal gradients in the Southern Alps during three winters on an experimental field station on the Swabian Jura and compared levels of frost damage with the observed number of frost days (<1 °C) in eight collection sites. We found that frost-hardiness increased with altitude in a log-linear fashion. This is consistent with adaptation to higher frequency of frost conditions, but also indicates a decreasing rate of change in frost hardiness with increasing altitude. Moreover, the number of frost days measured with temperature loggers at the original collection sites correlated much better with frost-hardiness than the altitude of collection sites, suggesting that populations were adapted to their local microclimate. Notably, the variance in frost days across sites increased exponentially with altitude. Together, our results suggest that strong microclimate heterogeneity of high alpine environments may preserve functional genetic diversity in small populations. This challenges the suitability of habitat predictions based on large scale climatic variables (or proxies, such as altitude) for topographically complex areas.
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