Getting away from it all: Why are invasive species invasive?

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen humans move from place to place, we almost always bring other organisms with us. Sometimes it’s intentional — domestic animals carried along with Polynesian colonists, for instance. Just as often, it’s accidental, as with mice stowing away on Viking longships. A lot of these introduced species have done so well in their new habitats that they become invasive, outcompeting natives and disrupting local ecosystem processes. But the species that go crazy-invasive — the cane toads and the purple loosestrife — are probably only the very successful subset of the species that hitch rides in cargo holds and ballast tanks. What sets the dangerously successful invasive species apart from others?

Purple loosestrife, introduced
from Europe, now common in East
Coast wetlands.
Photo by Muffet.

A new dataset published in last week’s PNAS suggests that it may be an interaction between available resources in a new habitat and a lack of compatible pathogens [$-a]. This is an amalgam of two hypothesized causes for successful invasion: access to new resources, and escape from antagonistic species. Focusing on European plant species that have successfully invaded North America, the authors, Blumenthal et al., assembled records of viral and fungal infections on each plant species in its native range, and in North America. They classified the plant species based on the habitats each occupies — wet vs. dry, nitrogen-rich vs. -poor — and on whether the plants tended to grow slowly or rapidly. This is because plant species adapted to rich, wet environments are generally thought to evolve fewer defenses against infection and herbivores; they can “afford” to grow new tissue instead of fight to keep it.

Garlic mustard, another invasive
from Europe.
Photo by clspeace.

If resource availability interacts with freedom from infectious agents to spur a successful invasion, then invasive plants adapted to rich conditions should tend to host more pathogens in their home ranges than they do in their introduced range; and this difference should be less pronounced in invasive plants adapted to dry, resource-poor conditions. This is exactly what the analysis found — plants adapted to richer habitats saw a larger reduction in the number of pathogen species attacking them in their new ranges than plants adapted to less-productive conditions.

This is a valuable result for its basic application — helping to predict which introduced species are likely to become invasive, and target them for eradication efforts before they become well-established. But it also provides us with an insight into how evolution works. Many authors, particularly G.G. Simpson and Dolph Schluter, have described ecological conditions that set the stage for adaptive radiation — the rapid diversification of a lineage into many species — which sound a lot like the “ecological release” that invasive species seem to experience.

Rapid evolutionary diversification may be triggered by the evolution of a key innovation; by colonization of a new, empty habitat; or the removal of antagonistic species (usually by their extinction). These three classes of conditions are closely related, and they can be mimicked, or even replicated, when humans move species to new habitats [$-a]. Blumenthal et al. suggest, for instance, that species invasions entail both colonization of a new habitat and escape from pathogens. This is a broad observation; a good next step would be to directly compare natural selection acting on invasive plants in their native and introduced ranges. Through day-to-day processes like this, the specific ecology of a species can ultimately shape its evolutionary fate.


Blumenthal, D., Mitchell, C., Pysek, P., & Jarosik, V. (2009). Synergy between pathogen release and resource availability in plant invasion. Proc.Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 106 (19), 7899-904 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0812607106

Vellend, M., Harmon, L., Lockwood, J., Mayfield, M., Hughes, A., Wares, J., & Sax, D. (2007). Effects of exotic species on evolutionary diversification. Trends Ecol. & Evol., 22 (9), 481-8 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2007.02.017