The interplay of hybridization and clonal reproduction in the evolution of willows: Experiments with hybrids of S. eriocephala[R] & S. exigua[X] and S. eriocephala & S. petiolaris[P].

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Clonal reproduction may contribute to plant evolution either by affecting population biology or by allowing partially sterile individuals (e.g., hybrids) repeated opportunities to reproduce sexually. The interplay of hybridization and clonal reproduction was first proposed by Stebbins (1950), but previously has not been tested experimentally. Alternative models for the effects of hybridization include speciation, introgression, and swamping. Salix spp. were chosen to test comparatively these hypotheses because they are easily hybridized and cloned. Over 500 separate crosses and backcrosses were made and over 6000 separate plants were measured in field experiments and statistically compared for significance to both evolutionary theory and plant breeding for biomass production. The F1 hybrids in this study always equalled, and in the case of the hybrid PR, outperformed their parents in vegetative parameters. It seems likely that even without reproducing sexually, these F1 hybrids could exist as successful individuals (sensu Stebbins 1950). However, it also seems likely that they would sexually reproduce: three of four F1 hybrids studied (RX, RP, and PR) equalled or surpassed their parents in sexual parameters when crossing with at least one other accession. Of the alternative models, experimental data suggest that introgression would be the most likely outcome of a hybridization event. The hybrid XR, however, was partially sterile and performed poorly when crossing with all other accessions in its group except S. exigua (pistillate parent). Thus, this hybrid may fit Stebbins’ model of a partially sterile yet vegetatively vigorous plant that can exist as a successful individual and make some contribution to interspecific gene flow over time. This is the first experimental study to confirm the evolutionary importance of clonal reproduction coupled with hybridization. However, distinguishing any of these evolutionary pathways would be difficult in nature using morphological techniques, as interspecific hybrids tend to resemble their pistillate parents in terms of leaf shape.

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