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Self-reinforcing impacts of plant invasions change over time


Returning native species to habitats degraded by biological invasions is a critical conservation goal1. A leading hypothesis poses that exotic plant dominance is self-reinforced by impacts on ecosystem processes, leading to persistent stable states2,3,4,5,6. Invaders have been documented to modify fire regimes, alter soil nutrients or shift microbial communities in ways that feed back to benefit themselves over competitors2,5,6,7. However, few studies have followed invasions through time to ask whether ecosystem impacts and feedbacks persist8,9. Here we return to woodland sites in Hawai′i Volcanoes National Park that were invaded by exotic C4 grasses in the 1960s, the ecosystem impacts of which were studied intensively in the 1990s10,11,12. We show that positive feedbacks between exotic grasses and soil nitrogen cycling have broken down, but rather than facilitating native vegetation, the weakening feedbacks facilitate new exotic species. Data from the 1990s showed that exotic grasses increased nitrogen-mineralization rates by two- to fourfold, but were nitrogen-limited10,12,13. Thus, the impacts of the invader created a positive feedback early in the invasion. We now show that annual net soil nitrogen mineralization has since dropped to pre-invasion levels. In addition, a seedling outplanting experiment that varied soil nitrogen and grass competition demonstrates that the changing impacts of grasses do not favour native species re-establishment. Instead, decreased nitrogen availability most benefits another aggressive invader, the nitrogen-fixing tree Morella faya. Long-term studies of invasions may reveal that ecosystem impacts and feedbacks shift over time, but that this may not benefit native species recovery.

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Figure 1: Ecosystem impacts of Melinis invasion over time, and through the soil profile.
Figure 2: Changes in dominant species biomass in exotic grassland habitat over time.
Figure 3: Assessing the changing impacts of Melinis invasion on native and exotic seedlings.
Figure 4: Feedbacks between Melinis and soils change over time, ultimately leading to negative feedbacks with N-fixing species.


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We thank M. Mack for previous data. We thank S. McDaniel and S. Doyle for native seed and the National Park Service for field site access and laboratory and greenhouse facilities. N. DiManno, V. Vincent, T. Kalei, T. D’Antonio-Dudley, K. Roehr, W. Buckley, M. Wasser and C. French helped with field work and N. DiManno, V. Vincent and S. Ma helped with laboratory work. We are appreciative of early manuscript comments from E. Mordecai and statistical advice from K. Brinck. This research was funded by National Science Foundation grant DEB 1029168.

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Authors and Affiliations



S.G.Y. and C.M.D. conceived and designed the study, managed the project, performed laboratory and field work and edited the manuscript. S.G.Y. analysed the data, developed the figures and drafted the initial manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephanie G. Yelenik.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Monthly rainfall over the study periods, and the 25-year average monthly rainfall.

Monthly rainfall over the course of 1 year during the 1995 and 2011 year-long sampling periods for net N mineralization (Fig. 1a). The last point in the series shows the average monthly rainfall for that year (points are means ± 1 s.e.). Also shown in blue is the same data for the 25-year rainfall average. Note that 1995 and 2011 have similar rainfall on average over the year, approximately 45% lower than the 25-year rainfall average.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 2 Relationship between net N mineralization and rainfall over the study periods.

Differences in net N mineralization between exotic grassland and native Metrosideros woodland sites in relation to monthly rainfall for the 1994–95 and 2011–12 study periods. The lack of relationship (r2 = 0.01, P = 0.74, n = 11) between site differences and monthly rainfall suggests that rainfall did not drive patterns in net N mineralization, or the relationship between invaded and intact woodland sites (Fig. 1a).

Source data

Extended Data Figure 3 Potential net N mineralization from laboratory assays.

Net N-mineralization incubations from the laboratory, where soils were held at 70% water-holding capacity and 23 °C. That there was no difference between exotic grassland and native woodland habitats (one-way ANOVA, habitat as fixed effect: P = 0.19, n = 10) matches results from intact field cores (Fig. 1a), suggesting that differences in climate between sites, which may have varied in the field, did not alter general results for net N mineralization. Bars represent means ± 1 s.e. We also ran the analysis with a Kruskal–Wallis test to account for unequal variances, although results were similar (P = 0.43, n = 10).

Source data

Extended Data Figure 4 RGRs for seedlings in the outplanting experiment.

RGRs were calculated after 8 months for the native seedlings (ae) and the exotic seedlings (f, g). a, Dodonaea viscosa (′ā′ali′i). b, Leptecophylla tameiameiae (pūkiawe). c, Osteomeles anthyllidifolia (′ūlei). d, Sophora chrysophylla (māmane). e, Acacia koa (koa). f, Morella faya (faya). g, Psidium guajava (guava). Bars represent means ± 1 s.e.

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Yelenik, S., D’Antonio, C. Self-reinforcing impacts of plant invasions change over time. Nature 503, 517–520 (2013).

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