Understanding the colonization of extreme marginal habitats and the relative roles of space and environment in maintaining peripheral populations remains challenging. Here, we leverage a system of pairs of rainforest and sandy coastal plain communities that allow us to decouple spatial and environmental effects in the population structure and migration rates of the bromeliad Aechmea nudicaulis. Structure and gene flow between populations were estimated from Bayesian clustering and coalescent-based migration models applied to chloroplast sequence and nuclear microsatellite data. Contrary to our initial expectation, the sharp environmental gradient between rainforest and sandy plains does not seem to have affected the colonization and migration dynamics in A. nudicaulis. Our analyses uncover pervasive gene flow between neighbouring habitats in both chloroplast and nuclear data despite the striking differences in environmental conditions. This result is consistent with a scenario of repeated colonization of the sandy coastal plains from forest populations through seed dispersal, as well as the maintenance of gene flow between habitats through pollination. We also recovered a broad north/south population structure that has been found in other Atlantic rainforest groups and possibly reflects older phylogeographic dynamics.
- environmental gradient
- population genetics—empirical