, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 69-84

Spatial sex segregation in the dioecious grass Poa ligularis in northern Patagonia: the role of environmental patchiness

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We examined the effect of environmental patchiness on the spatial segregation of the sexes in the dioecious anemophilus grass Poa ligularis. Because the species is sensitive to grazing, a better understanding of environmental factors that control its spatial distribution and abundance could improve conservation efforts. We hypothesized that (i) males and females are spatially segregated in the microenvironments created by plant patches as the result of sexual specialization in habitat and/or resources use, (ii) sexual specialization is related to different tolerance to competition and reproductive costs of males and females, and (iii) changes in patch structure affect the microenvironment and the intensity of spatial segregation of the sexes. We analyzed the spatial distribution of sexes at three sites with different plant and micro-environmental patchiness and performed a controlled competition experiment with different substitution of males and females. Our results showed that large plant patches created larger sheltered soil fertility islands than small patches. As patch size and their area of influence increased, the density and the spatial segregation of the sexes of P. ligularis also increased, resulting in biased habitat-specific sex ratios. In accordance with their higher reproductive costs, females were more frequent in sheltered (low air evaporative demand) and nitrogen-rich areas inside patch perimeters than males. Females were also better able to tolerate inter-sexual competition than males. In contrast, males tolerated low nitrogen concentration in soil and low sheltering, probably gaining advantage in pollen dispersal. Inter- and intra-sexual competition, however, affected the reproductive output of both sexes. From the point of view of conservation, environmental patchiness is important to the status of P. ligularis populations. The reduction of patch size limits the available microsites, biases the sex ratio towards males inside patches, increases inter- and intra-sexual competition, and it might be expected to decrease overall seed and pollen production and consequently potential recruitment.