Analysis of mating system and genetic structure in the endangered, amphicarpic plant, Lewton’s polygala (Polygala lewtonii)

Joel F. Swift, Stacy A. Smith, Eric S. Menges, Burgund Bassüner, Christine E. Edwards

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Polygala lewtonii is a federally endangered, amphicarpic plant with a mixed mating system and three types of flowers: (1) aboveground, chasmogamous flowers (i.e., open-pollinated; CH), (2) aboveground, cleistogamous flowers (i.e., closed, selfing; CL) and (3) CL flowers on belowground stems (amphicarpy). Aboveground seeds are ant-dispersed, whereas belowground seeds are spaced across the length of the rhizome. Here, we collected individuals of P. lewtonii at both range-wide and fine geographic scales and genotyped them at 11 microsatellite loci. We analyzed patterns of genetic diversity and structure to understand: (1) the predominant mating system (selfing or outcrossing), (2) the movement of pollen and seeds across the landscape, and (3) the optimal strategy to conserve the full range of genetic variation. P. lewtonii reproduces predominantly by selfing or bi-parental inbreeding, but reproduction occurred through each of the three flower types. Some individuals produced by selfing/inbreeding were tightly clustered spatially, and were likely produced either by belowground flowers or by aboveground flowers with limited seed dispersal. Other selfed/inbred individuals were spatially separated (maximum of 15 m), and were likely produced by aboveground flowers followed by seed dispersal by ants. Fine-scale patterns of genetic structure indicate that some gene flow is occurring among aboveground CH flowers but both pollen and outcrossed seeds are moving limited distances (maximum of 0.5 km). Because genetic variation is structured at a fine spatial scale, protecting many populations is necessary to fully conserve the genetic variation in P. lewtonii. Conservation seed banking, if accompanied by research on seed germination requirements, may also contribute to the effective protection of genetic variation in P. lewtonii.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1269-1284
Number of pages16
JournalConservation Genetics
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • Amphicarpy
  • Ant dispersal
  • Conservation
  • Genetic structure
  • Microsatellite
  • Mixed mating system
  • Self-fertilization


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