Anthropogenic fragmentation increases risk of genetic decline in the threatened orchid Platanthera leucophaea

Claire Ellwanger*, Laura Steger, Cathy Pollack, Rachel Wells, Jeremie Benjamin Fant

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Protecting biodiversity requires an understanding of how anthropogenic changes impact the genetic processes associated with extinction risk. Studies of the genetic changes due to anthropogenic fragmentation have revealed conflicting results. This is likely due to the difficulty in isolating habitat loss and fragmentation, which can have opposing impacts on genetic parameters. The well-studied orchid, Platanthera leucophaea, provides a rich dataset to address this issue, allowing us to examine range-wide genetic changes. Midwestern and Northeastern United States. We sampled 35 populations of P. leucophaea that spanned the species’ range and varied in patch composition, degree of patch isolation, and population size. From these populations we measured genetic parameters associated with increased extinction risk. Using this combined dataset, we modeled landscape variables and population metrics against genetic parameters to determine the best predictors of increased extinction risk. All genetic parameters were strongly associated with population size, while development and patch isolation showed an association with genetic diversity and genetic structure. Genetic diversity was lowest in populations with small census sizes, greater urbanization pressures (habitat loss), and small patch area. All populations showed moderate levels of inbreeding, regardless of size. Contrary to expectation, we found that critically small populations had negative inbreeding values, indicating non-random mating not typically observed in wild populations, which we attribute to selection for less inbred individuals. The once widespread orchid, Platanthera leucophaea, has suffered drastic declines and extant populations show changes in the genetic parameters associated with increased extinction risk, especially smaller populations. Due to the important correlation with risk and habitat loss, we advocate continued monitoring of population sizes by resource managers, while the critically small populations may need additional management to reverse genetic declines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere8578
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • conservation
  • fragmentation
  • gene flow
  • inbreeding
  • orchids
  • population genetics
  • rare species

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Ecology


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