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Can Invasive Species Enhance Competitive Ability and Restoration Potential in Native Grass Populations?


Ann L. Hild,


Native plant individuals often persist within communities dominated by exotics but the influence of this exposure on native populations is poorly understood. Selection for traits contributing to competitive ability may lead to native plant populations that are more tolerant of the presence of exotic invaders. In this way, long-term coexistence with an exotic may confer competitive advantages to remnant (experienced) native populations and be potentially beneficial to restoration. In past studies we have documented genetic differentiation within native grass populations exposed to the exotic invader Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens). Here, we examine populations of a cool-season grass, needle-and-thread (Hesperostipa comata [Trin. & Rupr.]) and a warm season, alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides [Torr.]) collected from Russian knapweed-invaded sites and adjacent noninvaded sites to assess their relative competitive ability against a novel exotic neighbor, Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). Experienced S. airoides (from within A. repens invasions) appear to better tolerate (accumulate biomass, leaf nitrogen content, and to initiate new tillers) the presence of a novel competitor (C. arvense). Experienced and inexperienced H. comata genets differ in their response to the presence of C. arvense. Relative neighbor effects of native grasses on C. arvense were generally greater from experienced grasses. The ability to compete with novel neighbors may be driven by general competitive traits rather than species-specific coevolutionary trajectories. Irrespective of competitive mechanisms, the conservation of native species populations within weed invasions may provide an important restoration tool by retaining unique components of native gene pools selected by competitive interactions with exotics.