The role of biotic factors during plant establishment in novel communities assessed with an agent-based simulation model.
Background Establishment success of non-native species is not only influenced by environmental conditions, but also by interactions with local competitors and enemies. The magnitude of these biotic interactions is mediated by species traits that reflect competitive strength or defence mechanisms. Our aim was to investigate the importance of species traits for successful establishment of non-native species in a native community exhibiting biotic resistance in the form of competition and herbivory. Methods We developed a trait-based, individual-based simulation model tracking the survival of non-native plants in a native community. In the model, non-native plants are characterized by high or low values of competition and defence traits. Model scenarios included variation of initial number of non-natives, intensity of competitive interaction, density of herbivores and density as well as mixture of the native community. Results Traits related to competition had a much greater impact on survival of non-native species than traits related to defence. Survival rates of strong competitors never fell below 50% while survival of weak competitors averaged at about 10%. Weak competitors were also much more susceptible to competitive pressures such as community density, composition and competition intensity. Strong competitors responded negatively to changes in competition intensity, but hardly to composition or density of the native community. High initial numbers of non-native individuals decreased survival rate of strong competitors, but increased the survival rate of weak competitors. Survival under herbivore attack was only slightly higher for plants with high defensive ability than for those with low defensive ability. Surprisingly, though, herbivory increased survival of species classified as weak competitors. Discussion High survival rates of strong non-native competitors relate to a higher probability of successful establishment than for weak competitors. However, the reduced survival of strong competitors at high initial numbers indicates a self-thinning effect, probably mediated by a strongly competitive milieu. For weak competitors, our model emphasizes positive effects of high propagule pressure known from field studies. General effects of herbivory or defence abilities on survival were not supported by our model. However, the positive effect of herbivory on survival of weak competitors indicated side effects of herbivory, such as weakening resident competitors. This might play an important role for establishment of non-natives in a new community.