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Genetic identity of interspecific neighbours mediates plant responses to competition and environmental variation in a species-rich grassland

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Although outbreeding populations of many grassland plants exhibit substantial genetic and phenotypic variation at fine spatial scales (< 100 m2), the implications of local genetic diversity for community structure are poorly understood. Genetic diversity could contribute to local species diversity by mediating the effects of competition between species and by enhancing species persistence in the face of environmental variation.

We assayed the performance of three genotypes each of a dominant tussock grass (Koeleria macrantha [Ledeb.] J.A. Schultes) and dominant sedge (Carex caryophyllea Lat.) derived from a single 10 × 10 m quadrat within a limestone grassland in Derbyshire, UK. Genotypes were grown in monoculture and grass–sedge mixtures of different genetic composition in two environments of contrasting fertility. Species mixtures also included one genotype of the subordinate forb Campanula rotundifolia L.

When grown without neighbours, intraspecific genotypes responded similarly to environmental treatments. One genotype of the sedge performed worse in both environments than the other two sedge genotypes.

When grown in species mixtures, genotype performance was significantly influenced by the genetic identity of the neighbouring species for both the sedge and the grass. At high fertility, differential genotype performance was not sufficient to alter the expectation of competitive exclusion of the sedge by the grass. However, at low fertility, the competitive dominant depended on the genetic identity of both the grass and the sedge. In addition, each genotype of the grass performed best next to a different genotype of the sedge, and the identity of the best genotype pairings switched with environment.

Performance of a single genotype of the subordinate Campanula was not predictable by fertility alone, but by how fertility interacted with different neighbouring genotypes of both the grass and the sedge.

Results support the hypothesis that the genetic identity of interspecific neighbours influences plant performance in multispecies assemblages and mediates species’ responses to environmental variation. Such interactions could be a key factor in the contribution of local intraspecific genetic diversity to species diversity.

Journal of Ecology (2007) 95, 908–915

doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2007.01256.x
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Keywords: Campanula rotundifolia; Carex caryophyllea; Koeleria macrantha; genetic diversity; limestone grassland; species coexistence

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 September 2007

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