Transgressivity in key functional traits rather than phenotypic plasticity promotes stress tolerance in a hybrid cordgrass.
Hybridization might promote offspring fitness via a greater tolerance to environmental stressors due to heterosis and higher levels of phenotypic plasticity. Thus, analyzing the phenotypic expression of hybrids provides an opportunity to elucidate further plant responses to environmental stress. In the case of coastal salt marshes, sea level rise subjects hybrids, and their parents, to longer tidal submergence and higher salinity. We analyzed the phenotypic expression patterns in the hybrid Spartina densiflora × foliosa relative to its parental species, native S. foliosa, and invasive S. densiflora, from the San Francisco Estuary when exposed to contrasting salinities and inundations in a mesocosm experiment. 37% of the recorded traits displayed no variability among parents and hybrids, 3% showed an additive inheritance, 37% showed mid-parent heterosis, 18% showed best-parent heterosis, and 5% presented worst-parent heterosis. Transgressivity, rather than phenotypic plasticity, in key functional traits of the hybrid, such as tiller height, conveyed greater stress tolerance to the hybrid when compared to the tolerance of its parents. As parental trait variability increased, phenotypic transgressivity of the hybrid increased and it was more important in response to inundation than salinity. Increases in salinity and inundation associated with sea level rise will amplify the superiority of the hybrid over its parental species. These results provide evidence of transgressive traits as an underlying source of adaptive variation that can facilitate plant invasions. The adaptive evolutionary process of hybridization is thought to support an increased invasiveness of plant species and their rapid evolution.