Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 28, Issue 12, pp 3299–3319 | Cite as

Delayed and immediate effects of habitat loss on the genetic diversity of the grassland plant Trifolium montanum

  • T. AavikEmail author
  • M. Thetloff
  • S. Träger
  • I. M. Hernández-Agramonte
  • I. Reinula
  • M. Pärtel
Original Paper


Loss of the area and connectivity of natural and semi-natural habitats impose serious negative effects on all aspects of biodiversity. However, quantifying the effect of these pressures is difficult due to the time-lagged responses of biodiversity to landscape change. The aim of this study is to determine if genetic diversity of plant populations exhibits a delayed response to recent landscape change. Using microsatellite markers, we evaluated genetic diversity in 28 populations of a grassland plant Trifolium montanum in Estonian calcareous grasslands. We examined the response of genetic diversity to various current and historic landscape parameters assessed at two time points: (1) 2017, and (2) 1930, when the extent of grasslands in Estonia was at its maximum. Observed heterozygosity (HO) and inbreeding coefficients (FIS) were affected by historic grassland availability in the surroundings of the study populations (buffer radius of 2000 m). However, expected heterozygosity (HE) responded positively to current grassland area and to the availability of grasslands in the surrounding landscape. Allelic richness (AR) was positively related to current population size. We found evidence for recent genetic bottlenecks in half of the study populations, indicating that landscape change had a negative impact on population demography and consequent genetic diversity. Our findings suggest that regardless of major habitat loss, some measures of genetic diversity of perennial plant species may not be at equilibrium with landscape change. This calls for caution when interpreting observed patterns of plant genetic diversity and requires consideration of historic landscape context when recommending nature conservation strategies.


Alvar grasslands Genetic extinction debt Habitat fragmentation Habitat loss Landscape genetics Time lag 



We acknowledge the support of the Estonian Research Council (IUT 20-29, PUT589, MOBJD427, TK131) and the European Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence EcolChange). We thank the two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on the first version of the manuscript and Robert Szava-Kovats for language correction.

Supplementary material

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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Botany, Institute of Ecology and Earth SciencesUniversity of TartuTartuEstonia

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