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Generic phylogeny, historical biogeography and character evolution of the cosmopolitan aquatic plant family Hydrocharitaceae

Ling-Yun Chen123, Jin-Ming Chen12, Robert Wahiti Gituru4 and Qing-Feng Wang12*

Author affiliations

1 CAS Key Laboratory of Aquatic Botany and Watershed Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan 430074, Hubei, P. R. China

2 Wuhan Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan 430074, Hubei, P. R. China

3 Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, 100049 Beijing, China

4 Botany Department, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, P. O. Box 62000-00200, Nairobi, Kenya

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:30  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-30

Published: 10 March 2012



Hydrocharitaceae is a fully aquatic monocot family, consists of 18 genera with approximately 120 species. The family includes both fresh and marine aquatics and exhibits great diversity in form and habit including annual and perennial life histories; submersed, partially submersed and floating leaf habits and linear to orbicular leaf shapes. The family has a cosmopolitan distribution and is well represented in the Tertiary fossil record in Europe. At present, the historical biogeography of the family is not well understood and the generic relationships remain controversial. In this study we investigated the phylogeny and biogeography of Hydrocharitaceae by integrating fossils and DNA sequences from eight genes. We also conducted ancestral state reconstruction for three morphological characters.


Phylogenetic analyses produced a phylogeny with most branches strongly supported by bootstrap values greater than 95 and Bayesian posterior probability values of 1.0. Stratiotes is the first diverging lineage with the remaining genera in two clades, one clade consists of Lagarosiphon, Ottelia, Blyxa, Apalanthe, Elodea and Egeria; and the other consists of Hydrocharis-Limnobium, Thalassia, Enhalus, Halophila, Najas, Hydrilla, Vallisneria, Nechamandra and Maidenia. Biogeographic analyses (DIVA, Mesquite) and divergence time estimates (BEAST) resolved the most recent common ancestor of Hydrocharitaceae as being in Asia during the Late Cretaceous and Palaeocene (54.7-72.6 Ma). Dispersals (including long-distance dispersal and migrations through Tethys seaway and land bridges) probably played major roles in the intercontinental distribution of this family. Ancestral state reconstruction suggested that in Hydrocharitaceae evolution of dioecy is bidirectional, viz., from dioecy to hermaphroditism, and from hermaphroditism to dioecy, and that the aerial-submerged leaf habit and short-linear leaf shape are the ancestral states.


Our study has shed light on the previously controversial generic phylogeny of Hydrocharitaceae. The study has resolved the historical biogeography of this family and supported dispersal as the most likely explanation for the intercontinental distribution. We have also provided valuable information for understanding the evolution of breeding system and leaf phenotype in aquatic monocots.

Hydrocharitaceae; Phylogeny; Historical biogeography; Dispersal; Vicariance; Morphological character evolution