Soil-microorganism-mediated invasional meltdown in plants.
While most alien species fail to establish, some invade native communities and become widespread. Our understanding of invasion success is derived mainly from pairwise interactions between aliens and natives, while interactions among more than two species remain largely unexplored. Here, we experimentally tested whether and how a third plant species, either native or alien, affected the competitive outcomes between alien and native plants through its soil legacy. We first conditioned soil with one of ten species (six natives and four aliens) or without plants. We then grew on these 11 soils five aliens and five natives without competition, or with intra- or interspecific competition. We found that aliens were not more competitive than natives when grown on soil conditioned by other natives or on non-conditioned soil. However, aliens were more competitive than natives on soil conditioned by other aliens (that is, invasional meltdown). Soil conditioning did not change competitive outcomes by affecting the strength of competition between later plants. Instead, soil conditioned by aliens pushed competitive outcomes towards later aliens by affecting the growth of aliens less negatively than that of natives. Microbiome analysis verified this finding, as we showed that the soil-legacy effects of a species on later species were less negative when their fungal endophyte communities were less similar, and that fungal endophyte communities were less similar between two aliens than between aliens and natives. Our study reveals invasional meltdown in multispecies communities and identifies soil microorganisms as a driver of the invasion success of alien plants.