Eco-evolutionary litter feedback as a driver of exotic plant invasion

M.B. Eppinga, J. Molofsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Many studies have examined positive feedbacks between invasive plant traits and nutrient cycling, butfew have investigated whether feedbacks arise from introduction of pre-adapted species or from ecoevolutionary feedback that develops after introduction. Eco-evolutionary feedback could occur between an invader’s leaf tissue C:N ratio and its response to litter accumulation. Previous modeling predicts that occurrence of this feedback would be reflected by: (1) field data showing higher litter:biomass ratios in the invasive range; (2) high C:N genotypes benefiting more from experimental litter additions than low C:N genotypes; (3) this beneficial effect on high C:N genotypes inducing a critical transition toward invader dominance when a critical amount of litter is added to a native species-dominated community experiencing low nutrient conditions. Here, we empirically tested these predictions for the invasive grass Phalaris arundinacea, which has undergone post-introduction evolutionary change toward attaining higher C:N ratios under high nutrient conditions. We performed a biogeographical comparison of litter:biomass ratios in the native (Europe) and invasive (USA) range, and an experiment with mesocosms from the invasive range under low nutrient conditions. Low and high C:N Phalaris genotypes were introduced into native-dominated and bare mesocosms, to which varying litter amounts were added. The biogeographical comparison revealed that litter:biomass ratios were higher in the invasive range. The mesocosm experiment showed that when grown in isolation, only high C:N genotypes responded positively to litter. This effect, however, was not strong enough to stimulate Phalaris when exposed to competition with native species. Our results suggest that eco-evolutionary feedback between Phalaris’ C:N ratio and litter accumulation could occur, but only under high nutrient conditions. Our experiments suggest that eco-evolutionary feedback may select for specialist rather than superior genotypes. Hence, genotypic variation induced by post-introduction admixture may be subject to context-dependent selection due to eco-evolutionary feedback, increasing trait variation within invasive populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-31
Number of pages12
JournalPerspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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