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Keywords:

  • ecophysiological traits;
  • exotic species;
  • light;
  • nutrient;
  • phylogenetic conservatism;
  • phylogenetically independent contrast;
  • resource-use efficiency

Summary

1. Plastic responses to spatiotemporal environmental variation strongly influence species distribution, with widespread species expected to have high phenotypic plasticity. Theoretically, high phenotypic plasticity has been linked to plant invasiveness because it facilitates colonization and rapid spreading over large and environmentally heterogeneous new areas.

2. To determine the importance of phenotypic plasticity for plant invasiveness, we compare well-known exotic invasive species with widespread native congeners. First, we characterized the phenotype of 20 invasive–native ecologically and phylogenetically related pairs from the Mediterranean region by measuring 20 different traits involved in resource acquisition, plant competition ability and stress tolerance. Second, we estimated their plasticity across nutrient and light gradients.

3. On average, invasive species had greater capacity for carbon gain and enhanced performance over a range of limiting to saturating resource availabilities than natives. However, both groups responded to environmental variations with high albeit similar levels of trait plasticity. Therefore, contrary to the theory, the extent of phenotypic plasticity was not significantly higher for invasive plants.

4. We argue that the combination of studying mean values of a trait with its plasticity can render insightful conclusions on functional comparisons of species such as those exploring the performance of species coexisting in heterogeneous and changing environments.