Fine-scale spatial patterns and genetic structure of two co-occurring plant congeners: fingerprints of coexistence?
1.¿The spatial distribution of individual plants within a population and the population¿s genetic structure are determined by several factors, like dispersal, reproduction mode or biotic interactions. The role of interspecific interactions in shaping the spatial genetic structure of plant populations remains largely unknown. 2.¿Species with a common evolutionary history are known to interact more closely with each other than unrelated species due to the greater number of traits they share. We hypothesize that plant interactions may shape the fine genetic structure of closely related congeners. 3.¿We used spatial statistics (georeferenced design) and molecular techniques (ISSR markers) to understand how two closely related congeners, Thymus vulgaris (widespread species) and T. loscosii (narrow endemic) interact at the local scale. Specific cover, number of individuals of both study species and several community attributes were measured in a 10 × 10 m plot. 4.¿Both species showed similar levels of genetic variation, but differed in their spatial genetic structure. Thymus vulgaris showed spatial aggregation but no spatial genetic structure, while T. loscosii showed spatial genetic structure (positive genetic autocorrelation) at short distances. The spatial pattern of T. vulgaris¿ cover showed significant dissociation with that of T. loscosii. The same was true between the spatial patterns of the cover of T. vulgaris and the abundance of T. loscosii and between the abundance of each species. Most importantly, we found a correlation between the genetic structure of T. loscosii and the abundance of T. vulgaris: T. loscosii plants were genetically more similar when they were surrounded by a similar number of T. vulgaris plants. 5.¿Synthesis. Our results reveal spatially complex genetic structures of both congeners at small spatial scales. The negative association among the spatial patterns of the two species and the genetic structure found for T. loscosii in relation to the abundance of T. vulgaris indicate that competition between the two species may account for the presence of adapted ecotypes of T. loscosii to the abundance of a competing congeneric species. This suggests that the presence and abundance of close congeners can influence the genetic spatial structure of plant species at fine scales.
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