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Keywords:

  • California;
  • climate change;
  • exotic species;
  • functional traits;
  • grass;
  • grassland;
  • height;
  • invasive species;
  • leaf nitrogen;
  • seed mass

Abstract

Over the next century, changes in the global climate are expected to have major consequences for plant communities, possibly including the exacerbation of species invasions. We evaluated this possibility in the grass flora of California, which is economically and ecologically important and heavily invaded. We used a novel, trait-based approach involving two components: identifying differences in trait composition between native and exotic components of the grass flora and evaluating contemporary trait–climate relationships across the state. The combination of trait–climate relationships and trait differences between groups allows us to predict changes in the exotic-native balance under climate change scenarios. Exotic species are more likely to be annual, taller, with larger leaves, larger seeds, higher specific leaf area, and higher leaf N percentage than native species. Across the state, all these traits are associated with regions with higher temperature. Therefore, we predict that increasing temperatures will favor trait states that tend to be possessed by exotic species, increasing the dominance of exotic species. This prediction is corroborated by the current distribution of exotic species richness relative to native richness in California; warmer areas contain higher proportions of exotic species. This pattern was very well captured by a simple model that predicts invasion severity given only the trait–climate relationship for native species and trait differences between native and exotic species. This study provides some of the first evidence for an important interaction between climate change and species invasions across very broad geographic and taxonomic scales.