• Australia;
  • exotic plant;
  • herbarium specimen;
  • invasion ecology;
  • leaf area;
  • leaf mass per area;
  • leaf shape;
  • morphological change;
  • plant height


1. While previous studies have demonstrated rapid evolution in introduced plants and animals, most focus on single species. They are therefore unable to show whether these are special cases, or if rapid evolution is a common phenomenon in introduced species.

2. We used over 1900 herbarium specimens to determine whether morphological traits [plant height, leaf mass per area (LMA), leaf area or leaf shape] have shown significant change during the last ∼150 years in 23 plant species introduced to New South Wales, Australia.

3. Seventy per cent of our study species showed a change in at least one trait through time. The most common change was in plant height (eight out of 21 species). Six of these showed a decrease in height through time. Decreases in height mainly occurred in western New South Wales where dry, low nutrient conditions may favour shorter plants. We also found changes in leaf traits, including one decrease in LMA, five changes in leaf shape, and three changes in leaf area. The magnitude of these changes was surprisingly large, up to 125% in 100 years.

4. We used specimens of both native Australian species, and of the introduced species taken from their native range to investigate the possibility that the morphological changes were a response to temporal environmental change rather than to the species’ introduction to Australia. These control species showed significantly (P < 0.05) fewer changes than the introduced species. We included in our analyses information on the region in which each specimen was collected, to account for the possibility that changes through time might be caused by populations radiating in to new environments where a different phenotype might be expressed. Overall, rapid evolution seems the most likely explanation for the changes we observed.

5.Synthesis. The majority of our study species showed morphological change through time. While common garden experiments will be required to rule out phenotypic plasticity as an alternative explanation for these patterns, our results suggest that rapid evolution in introduced plant species could be much more common, and of a much greater magnitude than previously thought.