Phenotypic plasticity and exotic plant invasions: effects of soil nutrients, species nutrient requirements, and types of traits.
High-phenotypic plasticity has long been considered as a characteristic promoting exotic plant invasions. However, the results of the studies testing this hypothesis are still inconsistent. Overlooking the effects of species resource requirements and environmental resource availability may be the main reasons for the ambiguous conclusions. Here, we compared phenotypic plasticity between five noxious invasive species with different nutrient requirements (evaluated using the soil nutrient status of their natural distribution ranges) and their phylogenetically related natives under five nutrient levels. We found that species with high-nutrient requirements showed greater plasticity of total biomass than species with low-nutrient requirements, regardless of their status (invasive or native). Invasives with high-nutrient requirements had greater growth plasticity than their related natives, which may contribute to their invasiveness under high-nutrient environments. However, compared with the related natives, a higher growth plasticity may not help exotic species with low-nutrient requirements to invade nutrient-rich habitats, and exotic species with high-nutrient requirements to invade nutrient-limited habitats. In contrast, invasives with low-nutrient requirements exhibited lower growth plasticity than their related natives, contributing to their invasiveness under nutrient-limited habitats. Functional traits showed growth-related plasticity in only 10 cases (3.8%), and there was no functional trait whose plastic response to soil nutrients was beneficial to exotic plant invasions. Our study indicates that low-growth plasticity could also promote exotic plant invasions, high plasticity may not necessarily lead to invasiveness. We must test the adaptive significance of plasticity of functional traits when studying its biological roles.