1. Over the last century, native Phragmites australis lineages have been almost completely replaced along the North American Atlantic coast by an aggressive lineage originating from Eurasia. Understanding the mechanisms that facilitate biological invasions is critical to better understand what makes an invasive species successful.
2. Our objective was to determine what makes the introduced lineage so successful in the study area by specifically investigating if morphological and ecophysiological differences exist between native and introduced genetic lineages of P. australis. We hypothesized a priori that due to phenotypic differences and differences in plant nitrogen (N) content between lineages, the introduced lineage would have a greater photosynthetic potential.
3. In situ ecophysiological and morphological data were collected for 2 years in a mid-Atlantic tidal marsh and in a glasshouse experiment. We measured photosynthetic parameters (Amax, water use efficiency, stomatal conductance) using infrared gas analysis, in conjunction with ecophysiological and morphological parameters [specific leaf area (SLA), leaf area, chlorophyll content, N content].
4. Introduced P. australis maintained 51% greater rates of photosynthesis and up to 100% greater rates of stomatal conductance which are magnified by its 38–83% greater photosynthetic canopy compared to the native type. The introduced lineage also had a significantly greater SLA and N content. Glasshouse-grown plants and naturally occurring populations demonstrated similar trends in ecophysiological characteristics, verifying the heritability of these differences. These ecophysiological differences, when combined with an extended growing season, provide the mechanism to explain the success of introduced P. australis in North America.
5. Our findings suggest the native type is a low-nutrient specialist, with a more efficient photosynthetic mechanisms and lower N demand, whereas the introduced type requires nearly four times more N than the native type to be an effective competitor.
6. Synthesis. Our study is the first to combine field and laboratory data to explain a biological invasion attributed to ecophysiological differences between genetic lineages. Our data corroborates earlier work suggesting anthropogenic modification of wetland environments has provided the state change necessary for the success of introduced P. australis. Finally, our results suggest that genotypic differences within species merit further investigations, especially when related to biological invasions.