Probing the role of propagule pressure, stochasticity, and Allee effects on invasion success using experimental introductions of a biological control agent.
Although most populations of non-native species arriving in new environments fail to establish, mechanisms behind failed biological invasions are still poorly understood. Propagule pressure has been found to be a dominant driver of establishment success, underpinned by processes such as stochasticity and Allee effects. While studies have revealed the presence of a component Allee effect in field populations, empirical support for demographic Allee effects has been limited. We used the leaf-feeding beetle Neolema ogloblini, a biological control agent against the plant Tradescantiafluminensis, as a proxy invasive species to experimentally study the process of establishment. We investigated how the initial size of the population released affects the probability of establishment and population growth in the first season after introduction at isolated sites in New Zealand. The probability of establishment was found to increase with numbers of individuals released. A significant quadratic relationship was found between population size released and per capita population growth rate; that is per capita population growth rate initially increased as population size released increased but decreased at higher population levels. These results support the presence of a demographic Allee effect. However, as the influence of stochasticity (environmental and demographic) could not be completely separated from that of a demographic Allee effect, we conclude that extinction probability in the experimental populations of N. ogloblini was influenced by both a demographic Allee effect and stochasticity. Our study demonstrates and supports the concept that experimental biocontrol agent releases can be used for testing hypotheses regarding invasion biology.