In order to remain viable over many generations, plant populations require the ability to respond adaptively to a changing environment. Such adaptive potential is directly controlled by underlying genetic variation, which can be measured in terms of both heterozygosity at the individual level and clonal, or genotypic diversity at the population level. This report summarizes research relating to the importance of genetic diversity in the restoration of salt marsh smooth cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, a dominant member of low elevation intertidal marshes throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coasts of North America. Recent research has indicated that S. alterniflora is a partially clonal species characterized by the recruitment of seedlings exclusively during the initial colonization phase of population establishment. A major consequence of this finding is that clonal diversity generally peaks rather early in the development of a restored marsh, depending on the rate of natural immigration and/or the clonal diversity of planting units, and then undergoes a steady decline over geological time spans because of stochastic mortality and intraspecific competition. Low levels of clonal diversity resulting from restricted immigration or clonally depauperate planting materials in turn places strict limits on opportunities for outcrossing in a species known to suffer from severe inbreeding depression. Low clonal diversity may further lead to declining levels of heterozyosity of individual clones, which directly affects competitive ability. In addition, the planting of genetically diverse plant materials should take into account the genetic and adaptive differentiation that takes place when plant populations are widely separated in space and/or dwell under varying sets of environmental conditions. Thus, steps should be taken to ensure that S. alterniflora clones developed for restorative plantings are both genetically diverse and sufficiently pre-adapted to environmental conditions at the proposed restoration site. This can be achieved by growing plant materials collected from local sources and by either taking care to maintain relatively high levels of clonal diversity or by planting clones at sufficiently low densities that they will not quickly grow to monopolize a restoration site without first producing several generations of sexual recruits through crosses with nearby native populations.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Genetic Considerations for the Restoration of Smooth Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) Within Its Native Range