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Plant genes link forests and streams

LeRoy, Carri J., Whitham, Thomas G., Keim, Paul, Marks, Jane C.
Ecology 2006 v.87 no.1 pp. 255-261
Populus fremontii, Populus angustifolia, hybrids, riparian forests, forest trees, forest litter, streams, community ecology, genetic variation, biodegradation, aquatic invertebrates, macroinvertebrates, community structure, Arizona
Although it is understood that the composition of riparian trees can affect stream function through leaf litter fall, the potential effects of genetic variation within species are less understood. Using a naturally hybridizing cottonwood system, we examined the hypothesis that genetic differences among two parental species (Populus fremontii and P. angustifolia) and two groups of their hybrids (F₁ and backcrosses to P. angustifolia) would affect litter decomposition rates and the composition of the aquatic invertebrate community that colonizes leaves. Three major findings emerged: (1) parental and hybrid types differ in litter quality, (2) decomposition differs between two groups, a fast group (P. fremontii and F₁ hybrid), and a slow group (P. angustifolia and backcross hybrids), and (3) aquatic invertebrate communities colonizing P. fremontii litter differed significantly in composition from all other cross types, even though P. fremontii and the F₁ hybrid decomposed at similar rates. These findings are in agreement with terrestrial arthropod studies in the same cottonwood system. However, the effects are less pronounced aquatically than those observed in the adjacent terrestrial community, which supports a genetic diffusion hypothesis. Importantly, these findings argue that genetic interactions link terrestrial and aquatic communities and may have significant evolutionary and conservation implications.