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Environment

Global ecology network created by U of M researchers overturns assumption about invasive plant species

February 1, 2011

New research using a global ecology network created by two professors in the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences has overturned the common assumption that many invasive plant species behave more aggressively in new habitats than in their own.

Instead, results indicate that invasive plants have a similar or lower abundance in new and native ranges, and that increases are unusual.

Invasive plant species are a serious environmental, economic and social problem worldwide. Their abundance can lead to lost native biodiversity and ecosystem functions, such as nutrient cycling.

The finding, published in the current issue of Ecology Letters, has important implications for creating screening procedures to predict and mitigate the impact of invasive species.

Scientists in a global collaboration called the Nutrient Network, created by U of M ecology professors Elizabeth Borer and Eric Seabloom, tested the "abundance assumption" for 26 plant species at 39 locations on four continents.

Jennifer Firn, a researcher from Queensland University of Technology and CSIRO, Australia, the lead author of 36 co-authors of the paper, found that the abundance assumption did not hold for the majority of plant species. Twenty of the 26 species examined had a similar or lower abundance at introduced versus native sites.

The results are the first to be published from the Nutrient Network. The network is led by individual researchers at the various sites, and coordinated through NSF funding to biologists Borer and Seabloom of the University of Minnesota.

"The Nutrient Network is the only collaboration of its kind where individual researchers have set up the same experiment at sites around the world," says Borer.

For three years scientists have been collecting population, community and ecosystem-scale plant data, including species-specific distribution and abundance data, with standardized protocols across dozens of sites.

"The experimental design used is simple," says Borer, "but it's one that provides a new, global-scale approach for addressing many critical ecological issues. It will tell us information we need to know about invasive species and changing climates."

The full article, "Abundance of Introduced Species at Home Predicts Abundance Away in Herbaceous Communities," is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01584.x/abstract.

Milfoil 300
Eurasian watermilfoil, now common in many Minnesota bodies of water, is an example of an invasive plant species.

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