Two sides of the same coin? Rare and pest plants native to the United States and Canada


  • Corresponding Editor: R. A. Hufbauer.


Plant biodiversity is at risk, with as many as 10% of native species in the United States being threatened with extinction. Habitat loss has led a growing number of plant species to become rare or threatened, while the introduction or expansion of pest species has led some habitats to be dominated by relatively few, mostly nonindigenous, species. As humans continue to alter many landscapes and vegetation types, understanding how biological traits determine the location of species along a spectrum from vulnerability to pest status is critical to designing risk assessment protocols, setting conservation priorities, and developing monitoring programs.

We used boosted regression trees to predict rarity (based on The Nature Conservancy global rankings) and pest status (defined as legal pest status) from data on traits for the native vascular flora of the United States and Canada including Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands (n ≈ 15 000). Categories were moderately to highly predictable (AUCpest = 0.87 on 25% holdout test set, AUCrarity = 0.80 on 25% holdout test set). Key predictors were chromosome number, ploidy, seed mass, and a suite of traits suggestive of specialist vs. generalist adaptations (e.g., facultative wetland habitat association and phenotypic variability in growth form and life history). Specifically, pests were associated with high chromosome numbers, polyploidy, and seed masses ranging from 0.1 to 100 mg, whereas rare species were associated with low chromosome numbers, low ploidy, and large (>1000 mg) seed masses. In addition, pest species were disproportionately likely to be facultatively associated with wetlands, and variable in growth form and life history, whereas rare species exhibited an opposite pattern. These results suggest that rare and pest species contrast along trait axes related to dispersal and performance in disturbed or novel habitats.