Elytrigia atherica is a tall clonal grass species typical of higher salt marshes, but is gradually invading to the lower marshes. At young successional stages of a salt marsh, E. atherica is found sparsely dispersed in small groups of ramets. These patches increase in size and ramet density over time, eventually forming extensive swards as succession proceeds. This study investigates the change in the clonal diversity of E. atherica stands during colonization as a result of its reproductive strategy. Clonal diversities of differently sized patches of E. atherica were investigated on two lower salt-marsh sites of different age, 25 years and 35 years, respectively. Microsatellite fingerprint patterns were used to determine genet identities and to estimate relatedness and genetic differentiation between the sites, between patches within sites and within patches. The majority of the patches on both sites contained more than one genet. On the older site, the clonal diversity was higher than on the younger site. However, the clonal diversity tended to decrease with increasing patch size. Low genetic differentiation was found between the two sites, indicating habitat differentiation, whereas differentiation between patches within sites was high. It is reasoned that different environmental conditions could have resulted in different clonal structures: On an older marsh, the increase of successful seedling recruitment, due to more suitable environmental conditions, leads to an increase in clonal diversity. Over time, with increasing ramet density, intraspecific competition is likely to increase, resulting in a decrease of clonal diversity.
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