To understand the mechanisms by which fern gametophytes compete and the consequences of their interactions, we studied the effects of intraspecific and interspecific chemical competition on spore germination, sexual development, and gametophyte size in two closely related and co-occurring species of Polypodium from eastern North America. We cultured gametophytes of diploid Polypodium appalachianum Haufler & Windham and tetraploid Polypodium virginianum L. and recorded spore germination, sexual development, and gametophyte size and growth rates in a series of treatments representing different levels of competition within and between the two species. We found that mature gametophytes of both species reciprocally inhibit spore germination, sexual development, and growth of neighboring plants; we show that these effects are due to chemical interactions and not competition for resources. Competitive effects on spore germination and sexual development are similar for within- and between-species interactions, but repression of growth and gametophyte size is greater when competing gametophytes are heterospecific. An additional mechanism of intergametophytic competition via proliferous vegetative growth is also reported. We conclude that gametophytes of these species interact through a novel context-dependent chemical system that is independent from sex expression-regulating pheromones (antheridiogens). Our findings indicate that inhibition of growth and development among fern gametophytes is not solely a side effect of antheridiogens, as is generally thought.
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