Reciprocal transplant experiments designed to quantify genetic and environmental effects on phenotype are powerful tools for the study of local adaptation. For long-lived species, especially those in habitats with short growing seasons, however, the cumulative effects of many years in novel environments may be required for fitness differences and phenotypic changes to accrue.
We returned to two separate reciprocal transplant experiments thirty years after their initial establishment in interior Alaska to ask whether patterns of differentiation observed in the years immediately following transplant have persisted. We also asked whether earlier hypotheses about the role of plasticity in buffering against the effects of selection on foreign genotypes were supported. We censused survival and flowering in three transplant gardens created along a snowbank gradient for a dwarf shrub (Dryas octopetala) and six gardens created along a latitudinal gradient for a tussock-forming sedge (Eriophorum vaginatum). For both species, we used an analysis of variance to detect fitness advantages for plants transplanted back into their home site relative to those transplanted into foreign sites.
For D. octopetala, the original patterns of local adaptation observed in the decade following transplant appeared even stronger after three decades, with the complete
elimination of foreign ecotypes in both fellfield and snowbed environments. For E. vaginatum, differential survival of populations was not evident 13 years after transplant, but was clearly evident 17 years later. There was no evidence that plasticity was associated with increased survival of foreign populations in novel sites for either D. octopetala or E. vaginatum.
Synthesis. We conclude that local adaptation can be strong, but nevertheless remain undetected or underestimated in short-term experiments. Such genetically-based population differences limit the ability of plant populations to respond to a changing climate.