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Keywords:

  • Flow regulation;
  • hierarchical survey design;
  • invasive plant species;
  • River Murray;
  • spatial scale;
  • vegetation

Abstract

Aim  Biological invasion is a major conservation problem that is of interest to ecological science. Understanding mechanisms of invasion is a high priority, heightened by the management imperative of acting quickly after species introduction. While information about invading species’ ecology is often unavailable, species distribution data can be collected near the onset of invasion. By examining distribution patterns of exotic and native plant species at multiple spatial scales, we aim to identify the scale (of those studied) that accounts for most variability in exotic species abundance, and infer likely drivers of invasion.

Location  River Murray wetlands, south-eastern Australia.

Methods  A nested, crossed survey design was used to determine the extent of variation in wetland plant abundance, grazing intensity and water depth at four spatial scales (reaches, wetland clumps, wetlands, wetland sections), and among three Depth-strata. We examined responses of exotic and native species groups (grouped into terrestrial and amphibious taxa), native weeds and 10 individual species using hierarchical ANOVA.

Results  As a group dominated by terrestrial taxa, exotic species cover varied at reach-, wetland- and section-scales. This likely reflects differences in abiotic characteristics and propagule pressure at these scales. Groups based on native species did not vary at any scale examined. Cover of 10 species mostly varied among and within wetlands (patterns unrelated to species’ origin or functional group), but species’ responses differed, despite individual plants being similar in size. While flora mostly varied among wetlands, exotic cover varied most among reaches (26%), which was attributed to hydrological modification and human activities.

Main conclusions  Multi-scale surveys can rapidly identify factors likely to affect species’ distributions and can indicate where future research should be directed. By highlighting disproportionate variation in exotic cover among reaches, this study suggests that flow regulation and human-mediated dispersal facilitate exotic plant invasion in River Murray wetlands.