High tolerance to salinity and herbivory stresses may explain the expansion of Ipomoea cairica to salt marshes.
Background: Invasive plants are often confronted with heterogeneous environments and various stress factors during their secondary phase of invasion into more stressful habitats. A high tolerance to stress factors may allow exotics to successfully invade stressful environments. Ipomoea cairica, a vigorous invader in South China, has recently been expanding into salt marshes. Methodology/Principal Findings: To examine why this liana species is able to invade a stressful saline environment, we utilized I. cairica and 3 non-invasive species for a greenhouse experiment. The plants were subjected to three levels of salinity (i.e., watered with 0, 4 and 8 g L-1 NaCl solutions) and simulated herbivory (0, 25 and 50% of the leaf area excised) treatments. The relative growth rate (RGR) of I. cairica was significantly higher than the RGR of non-invasive species under both stress treatments. The growth performance of I. cairica was not significantly affected by either stress factor, while that of the non-invasive species was significantly inhibited. The leaf condensed tannin content was generally lower in I. cairica than in the non-invasive I. triloba and Paederia foetida. Ipomoea cairica exhibited a relatively low resistance to herbivory, however, its tolerance to stress factors was significantly higher than either of the non-invasive species. Conclusions/Significance: This is the first study examining the expansion of I. cairica to salt marshes in its introduced range. Our results suggest that the high tolerance of I. cairica to key stress factors (e.g., salinity and herbivory) contributes to its invasion into salt marshes. For I. cairica, a trade-off in resource reallocation may allow increased resources to be allocated to tolerance and growth. This may contribute to a secondary invasion into stressful habitats. Finally, we suggest that I. cairica could spread further and successfully occupy salt marshes, and countermeasures based on herbivory could be ineffective for controlling this invasion.