Hybridization among dominant tree species correlates positively with understory plant diversity

Rachel I. Adams, Shaunna Goldberry, Thomas G. Whitham, Matthew S. Zinkgraf, Rodolfo Dirzo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Premise of the study: Elucidating the factors that determine the abundance and distribution of species remains a central goal of ecology. It is well recognized that genetic differences among individual species can affect the distribution and species interactions of dependent taxa, but the ecological effects of genetic differences on taxa of the same trophic level remain much less understood. Our goal was to test the hypothesis that differences between related overstory tree species and their hybrids can influence the understory plant community in wild settings. Methods: We conducted vegetation surveys in a riparian community with the overstory dominated by Populus fremontii, P. angustifolia, and their natural hybrids (referred to as cross types) along the Weber River in north central Utah, USA. Understory diversity and community composition, as well as edaphic properties, were compared under individual trees. Key results: Diversity metrics differ under the three different tree cross types such that a greater species richness, diversity, and cover of understory plants exist under the hybrids compared with either of the parental taxa (30 - 54%, 40 - 48%, and 35 - 74% greater, respectively). The community composition of the understory also varied by cross type, whereby additional understory plant species cluster with hybrids, not with parental species. Conclusions: Genetic composition dictated by hybridization in the overstory can play a role in structuring the associated understory plants in natural communities - where a hybridized overstory correlates with a species-rich understory - and thus can have cascading effects on community members of the same trophic level. The underlying mechanism requires further investigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1623-1632
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Botany
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2011


  • Canopy - understory interactions
  • Community genetics
  • Cottonwoods
  • Hybridization
  • Plant - plant interactions
  • Populus angustifolia
  • Populus fremontii
  • Species - genetic diversity correlation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science


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