Why are most aquatic plants widely distributed? Dispersal, clonal growth and small-scale heterogeneity in a stressful environment

L. Santamaria

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    Non-marine aquatic vascular plants generally show broad distributional ranges. Climatic factors seem to have limited effects on their distributions, besides the determination of major disjunctions (tropical-temperate-subarctic). Dispersal should have been frequent enough to assure the quick colonisation of extensive areas following glacial retreat, but dispersal limitation is still apparent in areas separated by geographic barriers. Aquatic vascular plants also show limited taxonomic differentiation and low within-species genetic variation. Variation within populations is particularly low, but variation among populations seems to be relatively high, mainly due to the persistence of long-lived clones. Ecotypic differentiation is often related to factors that constrain clonal reproduction (salinity and ephemeral inundation). Inland aquatic habitats are heterogeneous environments, but this heterogeneity largely occurs at relatively small scales (within waterbodies and among neighbouring ones). They also represent a stressful environment for plants, characterised by low carbon availability, shaded conditions, sediment anoxia, mechanical damage by currents and waves, significant restrictions to sexual reproduction, and sometimes also osmotic stress and limited nutrient supply. I propose that the generality of broad distributions and low differentiation among the inland aquatic flora is best explained by a combination of: (1) selection for stress-tolerant taxa with broad tolerance ranges. (2) The selective advantages provided by clonal growth and multiplication, which increases plant tolerance to stress, genet survivorship and population viability. (3) Long-distance dispersal of sexual propagules and high local dispersal of asexual clones. (4) The generality of broad plastic responses, promoted by the combination of clonal growth, high local dispersal, small-scale spatial heterogeneity and temporal variability. [KEYWORDS: Aquatic angiosperms; Clonal reproduction; Dispersal; Genetic variation; Geographic distribution; Habitat heterogeneity; Plasticity]
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)137-154
    JournalActa Oecologica
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


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