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Do plants adjust their sex allocation and secondary sexual morphology in response to their neighbours?

Vilas, Julia Sánchez, Pannell, John R.
Annals of botany 2012 v.110 no.7 pp. 1471-1478
Mercurialis annua, ferns and fern allies, gametophytes, geographical variation, hermaphroditism, males, pollen, spores, Morocco, Spain
Background and aims Changes in the sex allocation (i.e. in pollen versus seed production) of hermaphroditic plants often occur in response to the environment. In some homosporous ferns, gametophytes choose their gender in response to chemical cues sent by neighbours, such that spores develop as male gametophytes if they perceive a female or hermaphrodite nearby. Here it is considered whether a similar process might occur in the androdioecious angiosperm species Mercurialis annua , in which males co-occur with hermaphrodites; previous work on a Spanish population of M. annua found that individuals were more likely to develop as males at high density. Methods Using a novel approach to treat plants with leachate from pots containing males or hermaphrodites of M. annua , the hypothesis that individuals assess their mating opportunities, and adjust their sex expression accordingly, was tested through an exchange of chemical cues through the soil. Key Results For the population under study, from Morocco, no evidence was found for soil-signal-dependent sex expression: neither sex ratios nor sex allocation differed among experimental treatments. Conclusions The results imply either that the Moroccan population under study behaves differently from that previously studied in Spain (pointing to potential geographical variation in plasticity for sex expression), or that our method failed to capture the signals used by M. annua for adjustment of sex expression.