According to theory, gene flow to marginal populations may stall or aid adaptation at range limits by swamping peripheral populations with maladaptive gene flow or by enhancing genetic variability and reducing inbreeding depression, respectively. We tested these contrasting predictions by manipulating patterns of gene flow of the annual plant, Mimulus laciniatus, at its warm range limit. Gene flow was experimentally applied by using crosses within warm-limit populations (selfed and outcrossed), between warm-limit populations, and between warm-limit and central range populations across two elevational transects. We measured the fitness of offspring in a common garden at the warm-edge species range limit. All sources of gene flow increased seedling emergence at the range limit, suggesting local inbreeding depression at both range limit populations; however, lifetime reproductive success only increased significantly when pollen originated from another warm-limit population. Center–to–warm-edge gene flow was maladaptive by delaying time to development at this warm, fast-drying range limit, whereas edge-to-edge gene flow hastened emergence time and time to reproduction. By empirically testing theory on the effects of gene flow on the formation of geographic range limits, we find benefits of gene flow among populations to be greatest when gene flow is between populations occupying the same range limit. Our results emphasize the overlooked importance of gene flow among populations occurring near the same range limit and highlight the potential for prescriptive gene flow as a conservation option for populations at risk from climate change.
Natural Sciences in General