Background and Aims The extent to which hybridization leads to gene flow between plant species depends on the structure of hybrid populations. However, if this varies between locations, species barriers might prove permeable in some locations but not in others. To assess possible variation in hybrid population structure, the magnitude and direction of natural hybridization between two Chinese endemic species, Rhododendron spiciferum and Rhododendron spinuliferum, were evaluated.
Methods Thirteen nuclear microsatellite markers were employed to characterize 566 individuals collected from 15 non-allopatric populations and nine allopatric parental populations. Chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) sequences were obtained from a subset of samples. Genetic structure and direction of gene flow was determined using a combination of STRUCTURE and NEWHYBRIDS analysis.
Key Results Nuclear analysis revealed that parental taxa formed two genetically distinct clusters and hybrids shared the genetic background of both parents and did not form a separate genetic lineage. Overall, hybrid swarms were dominated by early- and later-generation hybrids, with a significantly higher proportion of hybrids (59·6 %) possessing >50 % R. spiciferum-like nuclear germplasm. The cpDNA analysis further indicated that a significantly greater proportion of hybrids (61·1 %) possessed the R. spiciferum cpDNA haplotype.
Conclusions Gene flow between R. spiciferum and R. spinuliferum was found to be bidirectional in 14 of the 15 hybrid swarms and asymmetrical in six hybrid swarms. Asymmetrical gene flow was evident for only nuclear DNA (nDNA) in two populations, for only cpDNA in three populations, and for both nDNA and cpDNA in one population. Collectively, the variation in genetic structure found among the 15 hybrid swarms suggests that introgression rather than hybrid speciation is a more likely outcome of hybridization between these hybridizing taxa.