Growth-form and spatiality driving the functional difference of native and alien aquatic plants in Europe.
Trait-based approaches are widely used in community ecology and invasion biology to unravel underlying mechanisms of vegetation dynamics. Although fundamental trade-offs between specific traits and invasibility are well described among terrestrial plants, little is known about their role and function in aquatic plant species. In this study, we examine the functional differences of aquatic alien and native plants stating that alien and native species differ in selected leaf traits. Our investigation is based on 60 taxa (21 alien and 39 native) collected from 22 freshwater units of Hungarian and Italian lowlands and highlands. Linear mixed models were used to investigate the effects of nativeness on four fundamental traits (leaf area, leaf dry matter content, specific leaf area, and leaf nitrogen content), while the influence of growth-form, altitude, and site were employed simultaneously. We found significantly higher values of leaf areas and significantly lower values of specific leaf areas for alien species if growth-form was included in the model as an additional predictor. We showed that the trait-based approach of autochthony can apply to aquatic environments similar to terrestrial ones, and leaf traits have relevance in explaining aquatic plant ecology whether traits are combined with growth-forms as a fixed factor. Our results confirm the importance of traits related to competitive ability in the process of aquatic plant invasions. Alien aquatic plants can be characterized as species producing soft leaves faster. We argue that the functional traits of alien aquatic plants are strongly growth-form dependent. Using the trait-based approach, we found reliable characteristics of aquatic plants related to species invasions, which might be used, for example, in conservation management.