There is no general explanation for why species have restricted geographic distributions. One hypothesis posits that range expansion or increasing scarcity of suitable habitat result in accumulation of mutational load due to enhanced genetic drift, which constrains population performance towards range limits and further expansion. We tested this hypothesis in the North American plant, Arabidopsis lyrata. We experimentally assessed mutational load by crossing plants of 20 populations from across the entire species range and by raising the offspring of within- and between-population crosses at five common garden sites within and beyond the range. Offspring performance was tracked over three growing seasons. The heterosis effect, depicting expressed mutational load, was increased in populations with heightened genomic estimates of load, longer expansion distance or long-term isolation, and a selfing mating system. The decline in performance of within-population crosses amounted to 80%. Mutation accumulation due to past range expansion and long-term isolation of populations in the area of range margins is therefore a strong determinant of population-mean performance, and the magnitude of effect may be sufficient to cause range limits.
We crossed plants of 20 populations from across the entire range of the North American plant, Arabidopsis lyrata, and raised the offspring of within- and between-population crosses at five common garden sites within and beyond the range. Offspring performance was tracked over three growing seasons.