Purdue University Graduate School
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Invasive plant impacts on recipient community diversity and biomass production

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posted on 2022-07-29, 03:23 authored by Andrea Nicole NebhutAndrea Nicole Nebhut

Biological invasion is a major and growing threat to global biodiversity and human well-being, but research on the impacts of invaders on their recipient environments lags behind that on the mechanisms driving invader establishment and spread. The total impact of an invader is defined by its range size, abundance per unit area, and per-capita effect, with both per-capita effects and abundance varying over time and across the invader’s range. These context-dependencies are determined, in part, by functional differentiation between the invader and its recipient system. In this thesis, I investigate how functional differentiation between invaders and their recipient communities regulates the impact of plant invaders on community diversity and/or biomass production.

First, I compare the effects of invasive Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana Decne.) to functionally similar native trees in three early-successional meadow environments in Indiana’s eastern corn belt plains. Despite my prediction that P. calleryana would have greater negative effects on the total biomass and diversity of the understory plant community compared to native trees, I found that P. calleryana had no significant impact on total cover, species richness, or Shannon’s or Simpson’s diversity indices for the understory community, compared to native Liriodendron tulipifera L., Platanus occidentalis L., or non-tree control plots. Likewise, P. calleryana had no significant impact on the native, introduced, woody, or native tree subsets of the understory community. These results indicate that the trait differences between P. calleryana and functionally similar native trees – and thus the per-invader effect of P. calleryana on its recipient community – are not of a great enough magnitude to produce changes in the understory community composition of these highly invaded, low diversity meadow environments with relatively new and sparse P. calleryana invasions. 

I then investigate the role of functional overlap in moderating invader impacts in California serpentine grassland communities through the lens of classic niche theory, which predicts that functional differentiation minimizes competition and therefore allows functionally distinct invaders to achieve higher establishment success but lower per-capita effects on their recipient communities. I tested this prediction by establishing small-scale experimental communities composed of individual or multiple functional groups differentiated by phenology – early-season annuals, nitrogen-fixing early-season annuals, and late-season annuals – and seeding these communities with early- or late-season invaders. I found that as invader density increased, effects on resident community biomass depended on complex patterns of invader and resident functional overlap. Across all resident community functional groups, the high density of early-season invaders enables them to capture a greater portion of total community biomass than late-season invaders, but early-season invaders reduce the ratio of resident:total invader biomass production by less, per-unit-biomass, than late-season invaders. These results highlight the need to consider both niche and fitness differences in predicting invader impacts and the complex nature of resident-invader interactions, which may not be sufficiently captured by coarse functional groups.


Degree Type

  • Master of Science


  • Forestry and Natural Resources

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Jeffrey Dukes

Additional Committee Member 2

Michael Saunders

Additional Committee Member 3

Helen Sofaer