Evolution of seed dispersal in North American Ephedra
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- Hollander, J.L., Vander Wall, S.B. & Baguley, J.G. Evol Ecol (2010) 24: 333. doi:10.1007/s10682-009-9309-1
Related plants often produce seeds that are dispersed in very different ways, raising questions of how and why plants undergo adaptive shifts in key aspects of their reproductive ecology. Here we analyze the evolution of seed dispersal syndromes in an ancient group of plants. Ephedra (Gymnospermae; Gnetales; Ephedraceae) is a genus containing ≈50 species in semiarid ecosystems worldwide and with three distinct types of cones. We collected mature cones and seeds of ten species of Ephedra in southwestern United States and measured nine morphological traits for each species. Principal component analysis and other data characterized three types of Ephedra cones and seeds. Species with dry, winged cone bracts are dispersed by wind (i.e., E. torreyana and E. trifurca), those with succulent, brightly-colored cone bracts are dispersed by frugivorous birds (i.e., E. antisyphilitica), and those with small, dry cone bracts and large seeds are dispersed by seed-caching rodents (e.g., E. viridis and E. californica). Two species (E. funerea and E. nevadensis) have cone and seed morphologies intermediate between two seed dispersal syndromes. Seed and cones traits were mapped onto two recent phylogenies to help reveal the evolutionary history of seed dispersal syndromes. Bird dispersal is thought to be the ancestral form of seed dispersal in ephedras as it is common in the Old World where Ephedra originated, but the three North American species dispersed by birds are not monophyletic. The two wind dispersed species in North America also do not cluster together, suggesting separate origins. Seed dispersal by seed-caching rodents is common in North America and appears to have evolved several times, but this syndrome is absent form other continents. The evolutionary history of Ephedra in North America suggests that the means of seed dispersal has been malleable. Evolutionary shifts were likely linked to changes in ecological conditions.