Competitive seedlings and inherited traits: a test of rapid evolution of Elymus multisetus (big squirreltail) in response to cheatgrass invasion.
Widespread invasion by Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass) in the Intermountain West has drastically altered native plant communities. We investigated whether Elymus multisetus (big squirreltail) is evolving in response to invasion and what traits contribute to increased performance. Seedlings from invaded areas exhibited significantly greater tolerance to B. tectorum competition and a greater ability to suppress B. tectorum biomass than seedlings from adjacent uninvaded areas. To identify potentially adaptive traits, we examined which phenological and phenotypic traits were correlated with seedling performance within the uninvaded area, determined their genetic variation by measuring sibling resemblance, and asked whether trait distribution had shifted in invaded areas. Increased tolerance to competition was correlated with early seedling root to shoot ratio, root fork number, and fine root length. Root forks differed among families, but none of these traits differed significantly across invasion status. Additionally, we surveyed more broadly for traits that varied between invaded and uninvaded areas. Elymus multisetus plants collected from invaded areas were smaller, allocated more biomass to roots, and produced a higher percentage of fine roots than plants from uninvaded areas. The ability of native populations to evolve in response to invasion has significant implications for the management and restoration of B. tectorum-invaded communities.