The role of sexual reproduction in the maintenance of established Zostera marina meadows
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The role of sexual reproduction in the maintenance of established Zostera marina meadows

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  • Journal Title:
    Journal of Ecology
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    For clonal plants, the role of sexual reproduction in the maintenance of populations can vary widely. Some species are dependent on repeated seedling recruitment. For other species, interactions between adults and seedlings within existing populations can affect seedling survival and limit sexual reproduction in existing populations. Genetic studies of seagrass populations increasingly suggest sexual reproduction is important for the resilience and stability of their populations, but as of yet little observational data support these findings. Because seagrass populations provide important ecosystem services and are threatened with increasing anthropogenic impacts, understanding their reliance on sexual reproduction is evolutionarily and ecologically important.

    The goals of this study were to determine (a) whether seedlings of a marine angiosperm, Zostera marina, establish and recruit within existing Z. marina meadows and (b) whether interactions between seedlings and surrounding adult shoots influence the survival of established seedlings. To meet these goals, surveys estimated seedling establishment and tracked seedling survival within multiple populations. Manipulative experiments then tested the impact of neighbouring adult shoots on seedling survival and the overall trajectory of experimental plots with and without sexual reproduction.

    A 3-year survey identified established seedlings within Z. marina meadows each year. Additionally, concurrent seed addition experiments indicated seed supply could influence seedling establishment rates. A survey tracking the survival of tagged seedlings, as well as the height and density of surrounding adult shoots, showed adult shoots may negatively impact seedling survival. Experiments then demonstrated that seedlings without neighbouring shoots survived longer than those with neighbouring shoots. Lastly, two transplant garden experiments comparing the survival of plots with and without seeds highlighted that seedling recruitment is likely most important to maintain bottom cover where disturbances generate gaps in the adult population.

    Synthesis. This study demonstrates that seedlings do establish within existing seagrass meadows, and that some survive to recruit into the adult population. Competition with existing vegetation, however, can be a factor compromising seedling survival. Sexual reproduction may thus most likely occur in, and be most important for, clonal plant populations that experience seasonal disturbance.

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    J Ecol. 2020; 108: 945– 957
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    CC BY
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