Plasticity, Not Adaptation to Salt Level, Explains Variation Along a Salinity Gradient in a Salt Marsh Perennial

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Boron, Sodium, Adaptive plasticity, Local adaptation, Optimal reaction norm, Phenotypic plasticity, Salt-tolerance traits, Specialization

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Evolutionary ecologists have long been intrigued by the fact that many plant species can inhabit a broad range of environmental conditions and that plants often exhibit dramatic differences in phenotype across environmental gradients. We investigated responses to salinity treatments in the salt marsh plant Borrichia frutescens to determine if the species is responding to variation in edaphic salt content through phenotypic plasticity or specialized trait response. We grew seedlings from fruits collected in high- and low-salt microhabitats, assigned seedlings to high- and low-salt treatments in a greenhouse, and measured traits related to salt tolerance. All traits were highly plastic in response to salinity. Plants from the two microhabitats did not differ in trait means or respond differently to the treatments. These results suggest that environmental differences between the two microhabitats are not creating genotypes adapted to high and low salt levels. In addition, despite evidence for variation in allozyme markers in this population, there was no significant genotypic variation (family effect) in any of the trait means measured across microhabitats. There was variation in plasticity for only leaf Na and leaf B concentration. The high degree of plasticity for all traits and the lack of differences among microhabitats across the salinity gradient suggest plasticity in many traits may be fixed for this species.

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Estuaries and Coasts, v. 33, issue 4, p. 840-852