The adaptive value of remnant native plants in invaded communities: An example from the great basin

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Changes in the species composition of biotic communities may alter patterns of natural selection occurring within them. Native perennial grass species in the Intermountain West are experiencing a shift in the composition of interspecific competitors from primarily perennial species to an exotic, annual grass. Thus traits that confer an advantage to perennial grasses in the presence of novel annual competitors may evolve in invaded communities. Here I show that such traits are apparent in populations of a native perennial grass, big squirreltail (Elymus multisetus M.E. Jones), exposed to cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.) competitors. Dormant big squirreltail plants were collected from cheatgrass-invaded and uninvaded sites near Bordertown, California, USA, a mid-elevation (1600 m) sagebrush community, and transplanted into pots in a greenhouse. Individual plants were split into equal halves. One half was grown with competition from cheatgrass, and the other half was grown without competition. Plants collected from invaded sites responded more quickly to watering, growing more leaves in the first 10 days after transplanting. In addition, big squirreltail plants collected from invaded areas experienced a smaller decrease in plant size when grown with competition than did plants collected from uninvaded areas. Accordingly, while there were fewer big squirreltail individuals in the invaded sites, they were more competitive with cheatgrass than were the more abundant conspecifics in nearby uninvaded areas. It is possible that annual grasses were the selective force that caused these population differences, which may contribute to the long-term persistence of the native populations. While it is tempting to restore degraded areas to higher densities of natives (usually done by bringing in outside seed material), such actions may impede long-term adaptation to new conditions by arresting or reversing the direction of ongoing natural selection in the resident population. If hot spots of rapid evolutionary change can be identified within invaded systems, these areas should be managed to promote desirable change and could serve as possible sources of restoration material or reveal traits that should be prioritized during the development of restoration seed material.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Bromus tectorum
  • Cheatgrass
  • Competition
  • Elymus multisetus
  • Invasive species
  • Local adaptation
  • Natural selection
  • Outbreeding depression
  • Rapid evolution
  • Restoration
  • Squirreltail grass

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  • Elizabeth A. Leger

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