Research Article

Biotic interactions drive ecosystem responses to exotic plant invaders

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Science  29 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6494, pp. 967-972
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba2225

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Exotic plants reduce carbon sequestration

Invasive exotic plants have become a major problem worldwide, with transformational effects on the composition and function of ecosystems. In a multifactorial experiment in New Zealand, Waller et al. show that exotic plants accelerate carbon loss from soils through their interactions with invertebrate herbivores and soil biota (see the Perspective by Urcelay and Austin). They built 160 mini-ecosystems in the field, manipulating interactions among plants, invertebrate herbivores, and soil biota. Key biological and abiotic responses were measured to quantify the relative contribution and interactions of the components of each community, revealing the potential of invasive plants to influence and suppress carbon sequestration through biotic interactions.

Science, this issue p. 967; see also p. 934


Ecosystem process rates typically increase after plant invasion, but the extent to which this is driven by (i) changes in productivity, (ii) exotic species’ traits, or (iii) novel (non-coevolved) biotic interactions has never been quantified. We created communities varying in exotic plant dominance, plant traits, soil biota, and invertebrate herbivores and measured indicators of carbon cycling. Interactions with soil biota and herbivores were the strongest drivers of exotic plant effects, particularly on measures of soil carbon turnover. Moreover, plant traits related to growth and nutrient acquisition explained differences in the ways that exotic plants interacted with novel biota compared with natives. We conclude that novel biological interactions with exotic species are a more important driver of ecosystem transformation than was previously recognized.

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