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Evolution of invasiveness through increased resource use in a vacant niche

Nature Plants volume 1, Article number: 15066 (2015) | Download Citation


Non-native plants are now a pervasive feature of ecosystems across the globe1. One hypothesis for this pattern is that introduced species occupy open niches in recipient communities2,3. If true, then non-native plants should often benefit from low competition for limiting resources that define niches. Many plants have evolved larger size after introduction, consistent with increased access to limiting resources4,​5,​6,​7,​8,​9. It has been difficult to test whether larger size reflects adaptation to exploit open resources, however, because vacant niches are generally challenging to identify in plants. Here we take advantage of a situation in which a highly invasive non-native plant, Centaurea solstitialis L. (yellow starthistle, hereafter YST), occupies a well-described environmental niche, wherein water is a known limiting resource10,11. We use a glasshouse common environment and climatic niche modelling to reveal that invading YST has evolved a higher-fitness life history at the expense of increased dependence on water. Critically, historical declines in resident competitors have made water more available for introduced plants11,12, demonstrating how native biodiversity declines can open niches and create opportunities for introduced species to evolve increased resource use, a potentially widespread basis for introduction success and the evolution of invasive life histories.

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We thank A. Guggisberg and M.S. Barker for assistance with seed collections; B.M. Anderson, S. Lin and K. Nurkowski for help with greenhouse measurements; D. Kaplan for assistance with greenhouse logistics; O. Broennimann for sharing scripts and advice for climate analyses; and B.M. Anderson and J. Braasch for helpful comments on drafts of this manuscript. This work was supported by funding from a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant #353026 to L.H.R., from University of Arizona start-up funds to K.M.D, and from a Postdoctoral Excellence in Research and Teaching (National Institutes of Health program K12 GM000708) fellowship to B.S.B.

Author information


  1. Department of Botany, University of British Columbia, BC V6T1Z4, Canada

    • Katrina M. Dlugosch
    • , F. Alice Cang
    •  & Loren H. Rieseberg
  2. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Katrina M. Dlugosch
    •  & Brittany S. Barker
  3. Department of Environmental Studies, De Anza College, California 95014, USA

    • Krikor Andonian
  4. Department of Biology, Mills College, California 94613, USA

    • Sarah M. Swope
  5. Department of Biology, Indiana University, Indiana 47405, USA

    • Loren H. Rieseberg


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K.M.D. and L.H.R. designed the research. K.A. and S.M.S. contributed seed collections; K.M.D., F.A.C. and B.S.B performed the research. K.M.D. and B.S.B. analysed the data and created the figures. K.M.D. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katrina M. Dlugosch.

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