Ecophysiological plasticity and local differentiation help explain the invasion success of Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) in South America.
Plasticity and local adaptation have been suggested as two main mechanisms that alien species use to successfully tolerate and invade broad geographic areas. In the present study, we try answer the question if the mechanism for the broad distributional range of T. officinale is for phenotypic plasticity, ecotypic adaptation or both. For this, we used individuals of T. officinale originated from seeds collected in five localities along its latitudinal distribution range in the southern-hemisphere. Seedlings were acclimated at 5 and 25°C for one month. After the acclimation period we evaluated ecophysiological and cytogenetic traits. Additionally, we assessed the fitness at each temperature by recording the seed output of individuals from different localities. Finally, we performed a manipulative experiment in order to assess the tolerance to herbivory and competitive ability between T. officinale from all origins and Hypochaeris scorzonerae a co-occurring native species. Overall, individuals of T. officinale showed high plasticity and ecotypic adaptation for all traits assessed in this study. Changes both in physiology and morphology observed in T. officinale from different origins were mostly correlated, enhancing their ecophysiological performance in temperatures similar to those of their origin. Additionally, all localities showed the same chromosome number and ploidy level. On the other hand, all individuals showed an increase the seed output at 25°C, but those from northern localities increased more. T. officinale from all origins was not significantly affected by herbivory while native showed a negative effect. On the other hand, T. officinale exerted a strong negative effect on the native species, but this former not effected significantly to the invasive T. officinale. High plasticity and local adaptation in all ecophysiological traits, seed-set and the low cytogenetic variability in T. officinale suggests that both strategies are present in this invasive plant species and are not mutually exclusive. Finally, higher tolerance to herbivory and competitive ability suggests that T. officinale could perform successfully in environments with different climatic conditions, and thus colonize and invade South-America.