Climate change forces plant populations to adjust their distribution to stay in their potential climatic niche, adapt to the novel climatic conditions, or suffer population declines and - in the worst case - extinction. Long-term records are needed to understand how climate change affects long-lived organisms such as trees, and to develop management strategies to maintain ecosystem services. Since existing research techniques cannot resolve population-level dynamics in the past, we are using a novel, holistic approach to study past climate-driven range shifts by combining paleoecological methods with the analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) and dynamic vegetation modelling.
We are particularly interested in the impact of climate change and anthropogenic disturbance on the genetic diversity of tree populations in the Alps. To track genetic diversity through time and space we are extracting and analyzing aDNA from individual conifer needles preserved in lake sediments since the end of the last Ice Age. This allows us not only to study population genetic processes in real time but also to make projections about the future genetic diversity of mountain forests under global change conditions. Our overarching goal is to assess the impact of global change on mountain forests from the genetic to the landscape scale, in order to help policy makers and ecosystem managers to protect multi-level biodiversity and maintain fragile mountain ecosystems and their services for future generations.