Differences in plasticity between invasive and native plants from a low resource environment


*Correspondence author. Department of Biological Sciences, Chapman University, Orange, CA 92866. E-mail: jlfunk@chapman.edu


  • 1Phenotypic plasticity is often cited as an important mechanism of plant invasion. However, few studies have evaluated the plasticity of a diverse set of traits among invasive and native species, particularly in low resource habitats, and none have examined the functional significance of these traits.
  • 2I explored trait plasticity in response to variation in light and nutrient availability in five phylogenetically related pairs of native and invasive species occurring in a nutrient-poor habitat. In addition to the magnitude of trait plasticity, I assessed the correlation between 16 leaf- and plant-level traits and plant performance, as measured by total plant biomass. Because plasticity for morphological and physiological traits is thought to be limited in low resource environments (where native species usually display traits associated with resource conservation), I predicted that native and invasive species would display similar, low levels of trait plasticity.
  • 3Across treatments, invasive and native species within pairs differed with respect to many of the traits measured; however, invasive species as a group did not show consistent patterns in the direction of trait values. Relative to native species, invasive species displayed high plasticity in traits pertaining to biomass partitioning and leaf-level nitrogen and light use, but only in response to nutrient availability. Invasive and native species showed similar levels of resource-use efficiency and there was no relationship between species plasticity and resource-use efficiency across species.
  • 4Traits associated with carbon fixation were strongly correlated with performance in invasive species while only a single resource conservation trait was strongly correlated with performance in multiple native species. Several highly plastic traits were not strongly correlated with performance which underscores the difficulty in assessing the functional significance of resource conservation traits over short timescales and calls into question the relevance of simple, quantitative assessments of trait plasticity.
  • 5Synthesis. My data support the idea that invasive species display high trait plasticity. The degree of plasticity observed here for species occurring in low resource systems corresponds with values observed in high resource systems, which contradicts the general paradigm that trait plasticity is constrained in low resource systems. Several traits were positively correlated with plant performance suggesting that trait plasticity will influence plant fitness.