Conserving the small milkwort, Comesperma polygaloides, a vulnerable subshrub in a fragmented landscape
Pimelea spinescens is a critically endangered species of the temperate grasslands of southeastern Australia. Two subspecies are recognised. Subspecies, P. spinescens subsp. spinescens, formerly common and widespread, is found in isolated remnants of previously extensive grasslands. The second subspecies, subsp. pubiflora, is thought to have been historically rare with only two geographically-isolated extant populations. The grassland communities exist now as fragmented remnants representing <1 % of their extent prior to European settlement in the early 1800s. Conservation management strategies for species in these critically endangered ecosystems rely on an understanding of genetic diversity and population structure to ensure long-term evolutionary potential. We used chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) and microsatellite markers to examine the population genetic structure of both subspecies. Analysis of cpDNA revealed 14 haplotypes with high divergence between the single haplotype found in subsp. pubiflora and most remaining haplotypes restricted to subsp. spinescens. Microsatellites also indicated high genetic differentiation between subspecies but little evidence of sub-structuring within either subspecies. Results suggest that seed dispersal has not been as limited as previously thought. In this fragmented habitat, a lack of genetic structure suggests buffers to genetic erosion, with current patterns reflecting genetic diversity prior to fragmentation. Plant longevity and the presence of seed banks may contribute to the maintenance of these patterns, resulting in a lag between fragmentation and genetic erosion. Whilst factors such as longevity and seed banks may be preserving historic genetic diversity, management is required to ensure the maintenance of this diversity into the future.