Indexed on: 13 Dec '05Published on: 13 Dec '05Published in: Oecologia
Clonal plant species have been shown to adopt different strategies to persist in heterogeneous environments by changing relative investments in sexual reproduction and clonal propagation. As a result, clonal diversity and genetic variation may be different along environmental gradients. We examined the regional and local population structure of the clonal rhizomatous forest herb Paris quadrifolia in a complex of forest fragments in Voeren (Belgium). Relationships between population size (the number of shoots), shoot density (the number of shoots per m2) and local growth conditions were investigated for 47 populations. Clonal diversity and genetic variation within and among 19 populations were investigated using amplified fragment length polymorphism markers. To assess the importance of sexual reproduction, seed set, seed weight and germination success were determined in 18 populations. As predicted, local growth conditions largely affected population distribution, size and density of P. quadrifolia. Populations occurring in moist and relatively productive sites contained significantly more shoots. Here, shoots were also much more sparsely distributed compared to populations occurring in dry and relatively unproductive sites, where shoots showed a strongly aggregated distribution pattern. Clonal diversity was relatively high, compared with other clonal species (G/N ratio=0.43 and Simpson's D=0.81). Clonal diversity significantly (P<0.01) decreased with increasing shoot density while molecular genetic variation was significantly (P<0.01) affected by population size and local environmental conditions. Lack of recruitment and out-competition of less-adapted genotypes may explain the decreased genetic variation in dry sites. Analysis of molecular variance revealed significant genetic variation among populations (PhiST=0.42, P<0.001), whereas pairwise genetic distances were not correlated to geographic distances, suggesting that gene flow among populations is limited. Finally, the number of generative shoots, the number of seeds per fruit and seed weight were significantly and positively related to population size and local growth conditions. We conclude that under stressful conditions populations of clonal forest plant species can slowly evolve into remnant populations characterized by low levels of genetic variation and limited sexual reproduction. Conservation of suitable habitat conditions is therefore a prerequisite for effective long-term conservation of clonal forest plant species.