The contribution of phenotypic traits, their plasticity, and rapid evolution to invasion success: insights from an extraordinary natural experiment

Maria L. Castillo*, Urs Schaffner, Brian W. van Wilgen, Johannes J. Le Roux

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    1 Citation (Scopus)
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    The context-depency of biological invasions makes it difficult to understand why some species become succesfull invaders and others not. Such understanding requires studying closely-related invasive and non-invasive alien taxa sharing the same introduction history in the same environment. We identified this unusual situation in Kenya where the individuals that founded invasive Prosopis juliflora and non-invasive P. pallida populations are still present in original plantations. We evaluated field-measured traits, conducted glasshouse experiments simulating different nitrogen and water availability treatments, and did reciprocal transplants to compare functional traits and plasticity between the founders of both species (i.e. ‘invasive–non-invasive congeners' comparison), and between P. juliflora individuals from plantations and invaded sites (i.e. testing for rapid evolution during invasion). We found that planted individuals of P. julifora and P. pallida differed in a number of key traits related to performance and spread (root:shoot ratio, number of stems and susceptibility to seed damage) as well as in levels of phenotypic plasticity in growth responses to resource availability, which may explain their differential invasiveness. Offspring of invasive P. juliflora individuals had higher seed mass and production, germination, survival, produced more stems, matured earlier and had higher plasticity compared with those of founder individuals, indicative of rapid post-introduction evolution. By using this exceptional study system, we show that differences in values of only a few key traits, increased phenotypic plasticity and post-introduction evolution have all contributed to the success of P. juliflora as an invasive species in Kenya.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1035-1050
    Number of pages16
    Issue number7
    Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2021. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • common garden
    • environmental stress
    • invasiveness
    • phenotypic plasticity
    • rapid evolution
    • tree invasions
    • woody invasive species


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