Predicting plant invasions under climate change: are species distribution models validated by field trials?



Climate change may facilitate alien species invasion into new areas, particularly for species from warm native ranges introduced into areas currently marginal for temperature. Although conclusions from modelling approaches and experimental studies are generally similar, combining the two approaches has rarely occurred. The aim of this study was to validate species distribution models by conducting field trials in sites of differing suitability as predicted by the models, thus increasing confidence in their ability to assess invasion risk. Three recently naturalized alien plants in New Zealand were used as study species (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, Psidium guajava and Schefflera actinophylla): they originate from warm native ranges, are woody bird-dispersed species and of concern as potential weeds. Seedlings were grown in six sites across the country, differing both in climate and suitability (as predicted by the species distribution models). Seedling growth and survival were recorded over two summers and one or two winter seasons, and temperature and precipitation were monitored hourly at each site. Additionally, alien seedling performances were compared to those of closely related native species (Rhopalostylis sapida, Lophomyrtus bullata and Schefflera digitata). Furthermore, half of the seedlings were sprayed with pesticide, to investigate whether enemy release may influence performance. The results showed large differences in growth and survival of the alien species among the six sites. In the more suitable sites, performance was frequently higher compared to the native species. Leaf damage from invertebrate herbivory was low for both alien and native seedlings, with little evidence that the alien species should have an advantage over the native species because of enemy release. Correlations between performance in the field and predicted suitability of species distribution models were generally high. The projected increase in minimum temperature and reduced frosts with climate change may provide more suitable habitats and enable the spread of these species.