Chemical responses of an invasive plant to herbivory and abiotic environments reveal a novel invasion mechanism.
Invasive plant environments differ along latitudes and between native and introduced ranges. In response to herbivory and abiotic stresses that vary with latitudes and between ranges, invasive plants may shift their secondary chemicals to facilitate invasion success. However, it remains unclear whether and how invasive plant chemical responses to herbivory and chemical responses to abiotic environments are associated. We conducted large scale field surveys of herbivory on the invasive tallow tree (Triadica sebifera) along latitudes in both its native (China) and introduced ranges (United States) and collected leaf samples for analyses of tannins and flavonoids. We used data on climate and solar radiation to examine these chemical responses to abiotic environments and their variations along these latitudes and between ranges. We also re-analyzed previously published data from multiple common garden experiments on tallow tree to investigate genetic divergence of secondary chemical concentrations between introduced and native populations. We found foliar tannins and herbivory (chewing, sucking) were higher in the native range compared to the invasive range. Allocation to tannins versus flavonoids decreased with latitude in the native range but did not vary in the invasive range. Analyses of previously published common garden experimental data indicated genetic divergence contributes to chemical concentration differences between ranges. Our field data further indicated that the latitudinal patterns were primarily phenotypic responses to herbivory in China while in US they were primarily phenotypic responses to abiotic environments. The variation of tannins may be linked to flavonoids, given tannins and flavonoids share a biosynthesis pathway. Together, our results suggest that invasive plants adjust their secondary metabolism to decrease chemicals that primarily defend against herbivory and increase those that help them to respond to their abiotic environment. These findings deepen our understanding of how invasive plants adapt to biogeographically heterogeneous environments through trade-offs between secondary chemical responses.