Mistakes and Small Steps Can Take You Far: Exploring Fern Variation and Biogeography in Cheilanthes (Pteridaceae), with a Focus on Spore Diversity and Range Expansion in Cheilanthes distans
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Why do species exist where they do? Understanding the forces and processes that shape species’ ranges—and that affect their dispersal and range expansion—have long fascinated biologists. In this work, I focus on understanding diversity and dispersal in Cheilanthes ferns. I first describe a species new to science, Cheilanthes ecuadorensis, from among the understudied South American members of this genus. I then turn to studying the widely distributed, asexual, Australasian species C. distans. Careful review of samples from this species allowed me to find sexual specimens previously unknown to science that exist in a narrow range, as well as to catalogue extensive spore diversity that has gone unrecorded. I find strong evidence for trade-offs related to spore size, with larger spores having higher germination while smaller spores have greater dispersal. Excitingly, I find that spores previously catalogued as abortive are in fact viable, and contribute to the spore size diversity I observe. I then place these findings into phylogenetic context by building a phylogeny for all Australasian Cheilanthes, and use it to explore the relationships of sexual and asexual lineages, of different ploidy levels, and of geographic distributions. These analyses reveal that most dispersal in C. distans occurs over shorter rather than longer distances, in contrast to previous hypotheses posited by fern biologists. I observe that lineages are not limited to particular geographic regions, as well finding that dispersal is asymmetrical and seems to be tracking trade winds. For all my work I rely heavily on herbarium specimens and use them to catalogue morphological variation as well as to obtain DNA sequences that are used for phylogenetic analysis. I implement a variety of statistical and systematic analyses to explore correlations between spore size, reproductive mode, ploidy, germination, and dispersal. While this work expands our knowledge of fern diversity and biogeography, much still remains to be understood, including cataloguing possible novel species, understanding the biology behind spore size determination, and exploring the role of niche in the dispersal and range expansion of C. distans.
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