Sarah Federman, MFS

2011 TRI Fellow in Brazil

Gene flow and dispersal of the tropical palm moriche (Mauritia flexuosa) among palm swamps: implications for biogeography and habitat fragmentation


Swamps dominated by nearly pure stands of the palm Mauritia flexuosa (Arecaceae), known as moriche, are distributed throughout the South American Tropics, and are fairly isolated systems: they have distinct habitat edges, and adjacent swamps are separated from each other by forest and river-bends from which the species is absent. Morichepalms are socio-economically important, their fruits are popular for human consumption, and the leaves have multiple uses, suggesting great potential for sustainable wild harvesting programs.

Compared to lowland forests, the swamp flora is relatively simple and homogeneous among sites, which, combined with their relatively closed nature, makes them ideal candidates for analyses of gene flow. In Trinidad, there are swamp stands of moriche scattered across a relatively small space that is separated from Venezuela by seven kilometers of water.

A study of moriche’s genetic diversity and gene flow between swamps in Trinidad will have multiple applications in conservation, management, and sustainable harvest programs. A better understanding of genetic diversity and gene flow in these ecosystems will allow for more informed conservation plans in the face of land-use change, since increased fragmentation could pose a barrier to gene flow and a population’s genetic diversification.

I will travel to Trinidad and sample moriche from a transect across Trinidad in order to examine genetic diversity of M. flexuosa among swamps.I willexamine gene flow among swamps with genetic markers I have developed that are specific to M. flexuosa in order to:(a)investigate biogeographic history of the swamps and (b)make inferences about dispersal between swamps. I willapply these data to discussions surrounding conservation, speciation, fragmentation, and possible sustainable harvest programs.