Hybridization among dominant tree species correlates positively with understory plant diversity.

Department of Biology, Stanford University, California 94305, USA.
American Journal of Botany (Impact Factor: 2.46). 09/2011; 98(10):1623-32. DOI: 10.3732/ajb.1100137
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Elucidating the factors that determine the abundance and distribution of species remains a central goal of ecology. It is well recognized that genetic differences among individual species can affect the distribution and species interactions of dependent taxa, but the ecological effects of genetic differences on taxa of the same trophic level remain much less understood. Our goal was to test the hypothesis that differences between related overstory tree species and their hybrids can influence the understory plant community in wild settings.
We conducted vegetation surveys in a riparian community with the overstory dominated by Populus fremontii, P. angustifolia, and their natural hybrids (referred to as cross types) along the Weber River in north central Utah, USA. Understory diversity and community composition, as well as edaphic properties, were compared under individual trees.
Diversity metrics differ under the three different tree cross types such that a greater species richness, diversity, and cover of understory plants exist under the hybrids compared with either of the parental taxa (30-54%, 40-48%, and 35-74% greater, respectively). The community composition of the understory also varied by cross type, whereby additional understory plant species cluster with hybrids, not with parental species.
Genetic composition dictated by hybridization in the overstory can play a role in structuring the associated understory plants in natural communities-where a hybridized overstory correlates with a species-rich understory-and thus can have cascading effects on community members of the same trophic level. The underlying mechanism requires further investigation.

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