Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

No evidence that rapid adaptation impedes biological control of an invasive plant.

Abstract

Biological control is a popular tool for invasive species management, but its success in nature is difficult to predict. One risk is that invasive plants, which may have adapted to lower herbivore pressure in the introduced range, could rapidly evolve defences upon re-association with their biocontrol agent(s). Previous studies have demonstrated that populations of the invasive plant purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) exposed to biocontrol exhibit traits consistent with the rapid evolution of defence. However, to date, no one has tested this hypothesis under field-natural levels of herbivory. Using seed from 17 populations of purple loosestrife growing in eastern Canada, that varied in their history of exposure to their biocontrol agent, the leaf beetle Neogalerucella spp., we transplanted 1,088 seedlings from 136 maternal families into a common garden under ambient herbivory. Over the following three and half years, we assessed plant performance in the face of biocontrol by measuring early-season plant size, defoliation, flowering, and season-end biomass. We discovered that a population history with biocontrol explained little variation in herbivory or plant performance, suggesting that adaptation is not hindering biocontrol effectiveness. Instead, plant size, subsequent defoliation, and spatio-temporal variables were the main predictors of plant growth and flowering during the study. The high individual variability we observed in plant performance underscores that flexible strategies of allocation and phenology are important contributors to the persistence of invasive plants. Our findings suggest that plant adaptation to biocontrol is unlikely to be a strong impediment to biological control in this species, however, the high survival and variable defoliation of plants in our study also indicate that biocontrol alone is unlikely to result in significant population decline. We recommend that the application of multiple forms of control simultaneously (e.g. thinning plus biocontrol) could help to prevent the existence of refuges of large, reproductive individuals.