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Extent and degree of hybridization between exotic (Spartina alterniflora) and native (S. foliosa) cordgrass (Poaceae) in California, USA determined by random amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPDs)



Spartina alterniflora, smooth cordgrass, native to the eastern USA, was introduced into south San Francisco Bay ≈ 25 years ago. It has spread by purposeful introduction of rooted plants and dispersal of seeds on the tides. Previous work suggested that S. alterniflora was competitively superior to the native California cordgrass, S. foliosa, and that the two species hybridized. The present study determined the spread of S. alterniflora and S. foliosa × alterniflora hybrids in California and examined the degree of hybridization. We used nuclear DNA markers diagnostic for each species to detect the parental species and nine categories of hybrids. The California coast outside San Francisco Bay contained only the native species. All hybrid categories exist in the Bay, implying that several generations of crossing have occurred and that hybridization is bidirectional. Hybrids were found principally near sites of deliberate introduction of the exotic species. Where S. alterniflora was deliberately planted, we found approximately equal numbers of S. alterniflora and hybrid individuals; S. foliosa was virtually absent. Marshes colonized by water-dispersed seed contained the full gamut of phenotypes with intermediate-type hybrids predominating. The proliferation of hybrids could result in local extinction of S. foliosa. What is more, S. alterniflora has the ability to greatly modify the estuary ecosystem to the detriment of other native species and human uses of the Bay. To the extent that they share these engineering abilities, the proliferation of cordgrass hybrids could grossly alter the character of the San Francisco Bay.