Clonal plant species can be considered as populations of interconnected ramets which are basically identical in form and function, and potentially independent from each other. Experimental studies and field observations suggest that an intra-clonal specialization of ramets with different roles (division of labour) can increase the performance of clonal systems under heterogeneous conditions. This paper explores structural and functional variation in the emergent macrophyte Scirpus maritimus, which forms ramets that specialize in three main activities: sexual reproduction, photosynthetic assimilation and vegetative growth, and reserve storage. The main question asked in this study is whether such specialization is a developmentally programmed syndrome in this species, and whether environmental conditions can alter the pattern of ramet differentiation along rhizome systems.
We analyzed clonal fragments collected from a population in the field, and grew clones individually in pots of two sizes to simulate different degrees of crowding and shoot density. Specialization of ramets was largely predictable from their position along the rhizome system, indicating that specialization is an inherent feature (developmentally programmed) of clone ontogeny in S. maritimus. In the field, sexual ramets were always situated at the base of rhizome systems, vegetative ramets were in first and intermediate positions, and shoot-less storage ramets were almost always formed distally on rhizomes (terminal ramets). In the pot experiment flowering ramets were observed in all positions along rhizome systems, suggesting that specialization for sexual reproduction shows a plastic response to environmental conditions.
S. maritimus can adjust the relative numbers of ramets with and without above-ground shoots when grown in different shoot densities, i.e. the frequency of individual ramets responsible for a certain functional or developmental process can be adjusted to environmental conditions and internal needs. In S. maritimus, the density-dependant regulation of storage versus vegetative growth and sexual reproduction may represent a mechanism to limit shoot competition in crowded populations.
Clonal growth Division of labour Functional specialization Shoot density