Is salinity an obstacle for biological invasions?
Invasions of freshwater habitats by marine and brackish species have become more frequent in recent years with many of those species originating from the Ponto-Caspian region. Populations of Ponto-Caspian species have successfully established in the North and Baltic Seas and their adjoining rivers, as well as in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region. To determine if Ponto-Caspian taxa more readily acclimatize to and colonize diverse salinity habitats than taxa from other regions, we conducted laboratory experiments on 22 populations of eight gammarid species native to the Ponto-Caspian, Northern European and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River regions. In addition, we conducted a literature search to survey salinity ranges of these species worldwide. Finally, to explore evolutionary relationships among examined species and their populations, we sequenced the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I gene (COI) from individuals used for our experiments. Our study revealed that all tested populations tolerate wide ranges of salinity, however, different patterns arose among species from different regions. Ponto-Caspian taxa showed lower mortality in fresh water, while Northern European taxa showed lower mortality in fully marine conditions. Genetic analyses showed evolutionary divergence among species from different regions. Due to the geological history of the two regions, as well as high tolerance of Ponto-Caspian species to fresh water, whereas Northern European species are more tolerant of fully marine conditions, we suggest that species originating from the Ponto-Caspian and Northern European regions may be adapted to freshwater and marine environments, respectively. Consequently, the perception that Ponto-Caspian species are more successful colonizers might be biased by the fact that areas with highest introduction frequency of NIS (i.e., shipping ports) are environmentally variable habitats which often include freshwater conditions that cannot be tolerated by euryhaline taxa of marine origin.