To become invasive, exotic species have to succeed in the consecutive phases of introduction, naturalization, and invasion. Each of these phases leaves traces in genetic structure, which may affect the species’ success in subsequent phases. We examined this interplay of genetic structure and invasion dynamics in the South African Ragwort (Senecio inaequidens), one of Europe’s fastest plant invaders. We used AFLP and microsatellite markers to analyze 19 native African and 32 invasive European populations. In combination with historic data, we distinguished invasion routes and traced them back to the native source areas. This revealed that different introduction sites had markedly different success in the three invasion phases. Notably, an observed lag-phase in Northern Germany was evidently not terminated by factors increasing the invasiveness of the resident population but by invasive spread from another introduction centre. The lineage invading Central Europe was introduced to sites in which winters are more benign than in the native source region. Subsequently, this lineage spread into areas in which winter temperatures match the native climate more closely. Genetic diversity clearly increases with population age in Europe and less clearly decreases with spread rate up to population establishment. This indicates that gene flow along well-connected invasion routes counteracted losses of genetic diversity during rapid spread. In summary, this study suggests that multiple introductions, environmental preadaptation and high gene flow along invasion routes contributed to the success of this rapid invader. More generally, it demonstrates the benefit of combining genetic, historical, and climatic data for understanding biological invasions.
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