Towards the top: niche expansion of Taraxacum officinale and Ulex europaeus in mountain regions of South America.
In the current context of ongoing global change, the understanding of how the niches of invasive species may change between different geographical areas or time periods is extremely important for the early detection and control of future invasions. We evaluated the effect of climate and non-climate variables and the sensitivity to various spatial resolutions (i.e. 1 and 20 km) on niche changes during the invasion of Taraxacum officinale and Ulex europaeus in South America. We estimated niche changes using a combination of principal components analyses (PCA) and reciprocal Ecological Niche Modelling (rENM). We further investigated future invasion dynamics under a severe warming scenario for 2050 to unravel the role of niche shifts in the future potential distribution of the species. We observed a clear niche expansion for both species in South America towards higher temperature, precipitation and radiation relative to their native ranges. In contrast, the set of environmental conditions only occupied in the native ranges (i.e. niche unfilling) were less relevant. The magnitude of the niche shifts did not depend on the resolution of the variables. Models calibrated with occurrences from native range predicted large suitable areas in South America (outside of the Andes range) where T. officinale and U. europaeus are currently absent. Additionally, both species could increase their potential distributions by 2050, mostly in the southern part of the continent. In addition, the niche unfilling suggests high potential to invade additional regions in the future, which is extremely relevant considering the current impact of these species in the Southern Hemisphere. These findings confirm that invasive species can occupy new niches that are not predictable from knowledge based only on climate variables or information from the native range.