Competition, niche opportunities and the successful invasion of natural habitats.
Fundamental to the establishment of exotic species in natural environments is that the invader finds an appropriate niche in the novel environment. However, it is currently unclear whether this is achieved by competitively displacing native species from their niches and/or by exploiting niche opportunities not monopolized by native species. Combining phylogenetic analyses with field observations and an ecological opportunity experiment, we here contrasted the competition and niche opportunity hypotheses as explanations for the success of an alien passerine, the Red-billed Leiothrix Leiothrix lutea, in a forest reserve from the Western Mediterranean basin. The invasion of Leiothrix provided a rare opportunity to assess the relative importance of each hypothesis because the avian community of the reserve has been systematically surveyed for the last 27 years, and hence species abundance data were available before and after the irruption of the invader. The invader established itself with relatively little resistance or consequences for native species, reflecting the opportunist-generalist nature of both the invader and the invaded native community. Although we cannot completely discard a role of competition, these results yield greater support to the crucial importance of niche opportunities to invade natural environments.