Mutualism vs. antagonism in introduced and native ranges: can seed dispersal and predation determine Acacia invasion success?
Plant species introduced to new regions can escape their natural enemies but may also lose important mutualists. While mutualistic interactions are often considered too diffuse to limit plant invasion, few studies have quantified the strength of interactions in both the native and introduced ranges, and assessed whether any differences are linked to invasion outcomes. For three Acacia species adapted for ant dispersal (myrmecochory), we quantified seed removal probabilities associated with dispersal and predation in both the native (Australian) and introduced (New Zealand) ranges, predicting lower removal attributable to dispersal in New Zealand due to a relatively depauperate ant fauna. We used the role of the elaiosome to infer myrmecochory, and included treatments to measure vertebrate seed removal, since this may become an important determinant of seed fate in the face of reduced dispersal. We then tested whether differences in seed removal patterns could explain differences in the invasion success of the three Acacia species in New Zealand. Overall seed removal by invertebrates was lower in New Zealand relative to Australia, but the difference in removal between seeds with an elaiosome compared to those without was similar in both countries. This implies that the probability of a removed seed being dispersed by invertebrates was comparable in New Zealand to Australia. The probability of seed removal by vertebrates was similar and low in both countries. Differences in the invasive success of the three Acacia species in New Zealand were not explained by differences in levels of seed predation or the strength of myrmecochorous interactions. These findings suggest that interactions with ground foraging seed predators and dispersers are unlikely to limit the ability of Acacia species to spread in New Zealand, and could not explain their variable invasion success.