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Sexual reproduction of cordgrass hybrids (Spartina foliosa x alterniflora) invading tidal marshes in San Francisco Bay


Correspondence: Debra Ayres, Evolution and Ecology, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA, USA. Tel.: 530 752-6852; Fax: 530 752-1449; E-mail:


We genetically analysed cordgrass plants and seedlings throughout the San Francisco, California, USA, estuary and found that hybrids between exotic Spartina alterniflora and native Spartina foliosa are the principal cordgrass invaders and colonizers. We hypothesized that this was due to higher seed set and siring ability by hybrids relative to the native species; too few alien parents remained in San Francisco Bay for our comparative studies. Hybrid seed comprised 91% to 98% of that set in the marsh study plants over the 2 years of the study. Total viable pollen production by hybrid plants was 400 times that of the native plants. Seed and pollen production were highly skewed towards a few hybrid genotypes. In addition to seed produced by hybrid plants, hybrid seed was produced by S. foliosa due to hybrid backcrossing. While the greatest advantage for hybrids was in pollen and seed production, hybrid seeds germinated, and seedlings survived and grew as well or better than the native species. As native S. foliosa becomes increasingly rare, hybrid seed floating on the tides will predominate, overwhelming recruitment sites and resulting in further colonization by hybrids. In an evolutionary context, hybrids with exceptional pollen and seed production will be initially favoured by natural selection, leading to the evolution of even more fertile hybrid genotypes.