Species diversity and population density affect genetic structure and gene dispersal in a subtropical understory shrub.
Aims: The dispersal of pollen and seeds is spatially restricted and may vary among plant populations because of varying biotic interactions, population histories or abiotic conditions. Because gene dispersal is spatially restricted, it will eventually result in the development of spatial genetic structure (SGS), which in turn can allow insights into gene dispersal processes. Here, we assessed the effect of habitat characteristics like population density and community structure on small-scale SGS and estimate historical gene dispersal at different spatial scales. Methods: In a set of 12 populations of the subtropical understory shrub Ardisia crenata, we assessed genetic variation at 7 microsatellite loci within and among populations. We investigated small-scale genetic structure with spatial genetic autocorrelation statistics and heterogeneity tests and estimated gene dispersal distances based on population differentiation and on within-population SGS. SGS was related to habitat characteristics by multiple regression. Important Findings: The populations showed high genetic diversity (He=0.64) within populations and rather strong genetic differentiation (F′ST=0.208) among populations, following an isolation-by-distance pattern, which suggests that populations are in gene flow-drift equilibrium. Significant SGS was present within populations (mean Sp=0.027). Population density and species diversity had a joint effect on SGS with low population density and high species diversity leading to stronger small-scale SGS. Estimates of historical gene dispersal from between-population differentiation and from within-population SGS resulted in similar values between 4.8 and 22.9 m. The results indicate that local-ranged pollen dispersal and inefficient long-distance seed dispersal, both affected by population density and species diversity, contributed to the genetic population structure of the species. We suggest that SGS in shrubs is more similar to that of herbs than to trees and that in communities with high species diversity gene flow is more restricted than at low species diversity. This may represent a process that retards the development of a positive species diversity-genetic diversity relationship.