Small, isolated and/or peripheral populations are expected to harbour low levels of genetic variation and may therefore have reduced adaptability to environmental change, including climate warming. In the Arctic, global warming has already caused vegetation change across the region and is acting as a significant stressor on Arctic biodiversity. Many of the rare plants in the Arctic are relicts from early Holocene warm periods, but their ability to benefit from the current warming is dependent on the viability of their populations. We therefore examined Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism (AFLP) data from regional red listed vascular plant species in the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and reference populations from the main distribution area of: (1) Botrychium lunaria, (2) Carex capillaris ssp. fuscidula, (3) Comastoma tenellum, (4) Kobresia simpliciuscula ssp. subholarctica, (5) Ranunculus wilanderi, (6) Sibbaldia procumbens and (7) Tofieldia pusilla. In addition, we gathered population size data in Svalbard. The Svalbard populations had low genetic diversity and distinctiveness and few or no private markers compared to populations outside the archipelago. This is similar to observations in other rare species in Svalbard and the genetic depletion may be due to an initial founder effect and/or a genetic bottleneck caused by late Holocene cooling. There seems to be limited gene flow from other areas and the Svalbard populations should therefore be considered as demographically independent management units. Overall, these management units have small and/or few populations and are therefore prone to stochastic events which may further increase vulnerability to inbreeding depression, loss of genetic variation, and reduced evolutionary potential. Our results support theory predicting lower levels of genetic diversity in small, isolated and/or peripheral populations and may be of importance for management of other rare plant species in the Arctic.
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