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Widespread co-occurrence of multiple ploidy levels in fragile ferns (Cystopteris fragilis complex; Cystopteridaceae) probably stems from similar ecology of cytotypes, their efficient dispersal and inter-ploidy hybridization.


Background and aims

Polyploidy has played an important role in the evolution of ferns. However, the dearth of data on cytotype diversity, cytotype distribution patterns and ecology in ferns is striking in comparison with angiosperms and prevents an assessment of whether cytotype coexistence and its mechanisms show similar patterns in both plant groups. Here, an attempt to fill this gap was made using the ploidy-variable and widely distributed Cystopteris fragilis complex.


Flow cytometry was used to assess DNA ploidy level and monoploid genome size (Cx value) of 5518 C. fragilis individuals from 449 populations collected over most of the species' global distributional range, supplemented with data from 405 individuals representing other related species from the complex. Ecological preferences of C. fragilis tetraploids and hexaploids were compared using field-recorded parameters and database-extracted climate data.

Key results

Altogether, five different ploidy levels (2x, 4x, 5x, 6x, 8x) were detected and three species exhibited intraspecific ploidy-level variation: C. fragilis, C. alpina and C. diaphana. Two predominant C. fragilis cytotypes, tetraploids and hexaploids, co-occur over most of Europe in a diffuse, mosaic-like pattern. Within this contact zone, 40 % of populations were mixed-ploidy and most also contained pentaploid hybrids. Environmental conditions had only a limited effect on the distribution of cytotypes. Differences were found in the Cx value of tetraploids and hexaploids: between-cytotype divergence was higher in uniform-ploidy than in mixed-ploidy populations.


High ploidy-level diversity and widespread cytotype coexistence in the C. fragilis complex match the well-documented patterns in some angiosperms. While ploidy coexistence in C. fragilis is not driven by environmental factors, it could be facilitated by the perennial life-form of the species, its reproductive modes and efficient wind dispersal of spores. Independent origins of hexaploids and/or inter-ploidy gene flow may be expected in mixed-ploidy populations according to Cx value comparisons.

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