Phenotypic plasticity as a clue for invasion success of the submerged aquatic plant Elodea nuttallii.
Two closely related alien submerged aquatic plants were introduced into Europe. The new invader (Elodea nuttallii) gradually displaced E. canadensis even at sites where the latter was well established. The aim of the study was to evaluate the combined effects of environmental factors on several phenotypic characteristics of the two Elodea species, and to relate these phenotypic characteristics to the invasion success of E. nuttallii over E. canadensis. In a factorial design, Elodea plants were grown in aquaria containing five different nitrogen concentrations and incubated at five different light intensities. We used six functional traits (apical shoot RGR, total shoot RGR, relative elongation, root length, lateral spread, branching degree) to measure the environmental response of the species. We calculated plasticity indices to express the phenotypic differences between species. Light and nitrogen jointly triggered the development of phenotypic characteristics that make E. nuttallii a more successful invader in eutrophic waters than E. canadensis. The stronger invader showed a wider range of phenotypic plasticity. The apical elongation was the main difference between the two species, with E. nuttallii being more than two times longer than E. canadensis. E. canadensis formed dense side shoots even under high shade and low nitrogen levels, whereas E. nuttallii required higher light and nitrogen levels. We found that under more eutrophic conditions, E. nuttallii reach the water surface sooner than E. canadensis and through intensive branching outcompetes all other plants including E. canadensis. Our findings support the theory that more successful invaders have wider phenotypic plasticity.