Plant hybrid zones affect biodiversity: Tools for a genetic-based understanding of community structure

Thomas G. Whitham, Gregory D. Martinsen, Kevin D. Floate, Heidi S. Dungey, Brad M. Potts, Paul Keim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

175 Scopus citations


Plant hybrid zones are dynamic centers of ecological and evolutionary processes for plants and their associated communities. Studies in the wild and in gardens with synthetic crosses showed that hybrid eucalypts supported the greatest species richness and abundances of insect and fungal taxa. In an updated review of 152 case studies of taxa associated with diverse hybridizing systems, there were 43 (28%) cases of hybrids being more susceptible than their parent species, 7 (5%) resistant, 35 (23%) additive, 35 (23%) dominant, and 32 (21%) showed no response to hybridization. Thus, most taxa respond to hybrids in ways that result in equal or greater abundance, and hybrids tend to accumulate the taxa of their parent species. These studies suggest that genetic-based plant traits affect the distribution of many species and that the variation in hybrids can be used as tools to examine the genetic components of community structure and biodiversity. Several patterns have emerged thus far. (1) Genetic variation between classes of hybrids (e.g., F1's vs. backcrosses) may equal or even exceed that found between species. (2) As a reflection of this genetic variation, herbivores are more likely to differentiate between hybrid classes than they are to differentiate between pure plant species. (3) The communities associated with different hybrid classes can differ from one another as well as from their parental species. (4) Generalist and specialist herbivores predictably vary in their responses to hybrids. (5) Plant hybrid zones may represent essential habitat for some arthropod species. (6) Even nesting birds respond to hybridizing plants. (7) Including multiple trophic levels and taxa from microbes to vertebrates, susceptible hybrid genotypes support greater biodiversity than resistant genotypes. (8) The effects of hybridization on common or keystone species can either positively or negatively affect biodiversity. The indirect impacts of hybridization on biodiversity may exceed the direct impacts and may result in 'apparent' herbivore resistance or susceptibility at the community level. (9) Although hybrids are often maligned, exotic or problem hybrids generally result from human disturbances, whereas native hybrids are part of natural ecosystems and should be conserved. Three predictions are made: (1) Intermediate genetic differences between the parental species will result in the greatest genetic variation in the hybrid zone, which in turn will have a positive effect on biodiversity. (2) Bidirectional introgression enhances species richness on hybrids, whereas F1 sterility and unidirectional introgression limit the accumulation of species on hybrids. (3) Although susceptible hybrids are likely to support the greatest biodiversity, the impacts of hybridization on keystone species will be crucial in determining the overall effect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)416-428
Number of pages13
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1999


  • Biodiversity
  • Conservation and endangered species
  • Genetic basis of community structure
  • Genetic diversity
  • Indirect effects
  • Keystone species
  • Plant hybrid zones
  • Specialists and generalists

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Plant hybrid zones affect biodiversity: Tools for a genetic-based understanding of community structure'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this