Plant community composition and structural characteristics of an invaded forest in the Galápagos.
Non-native species have invaded habitats worldwide, greatly impacting the structure and function of native communities and ecosystems. To better understand mechanisms of invasion impacts and how to restore highly impacted and transformed ecosystems, studies are needed that evaluate invader effects on both biotic communities and structural characteristics. On Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos we compared biotic (plant species richness, diversity, and community composition) and structural (canopy openness, forest height, and leaf litter) characteristics of a relic forest dominated by an endemic and highly threatened tree and a forest dominated by an invasive tree. The forests are located within the historical distribution of the endemic tree, which now occupies only 1% of its original extent. We found that the invaded forest had 42% lower native plant species richness and 17% less plant diversity than the endemic tree dominated forest. Additionally, with the invader there was 36% greater non-native plant species richness, 37% higher non-native plant diversity, and highly dissimilar plant composition when compared to the endemic-dominated forest. Additionally, the invaded forest had a more open and taller tree canopy and greater leaf litter cover than native forest. The presence of the invasive tree and the associated forest structural changes were the primary factors in models that best explained higher non-native diversity in the invaded forest. Our correlational results suggest that an invasive tree has significantly altered plant assemblage and forest structural characteristics in this unique ecosystem. Experiments that remove the invader and evaluate native plant community responses are needed to identify thresholds for practical restoration of this threatened and biologically unique native forest.