Do invasive species escape their enemies?

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Dianthus armeria

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Dianthus armeria

The activities are as follows:

Invasive species, like zebra mussels and garlic mustard, are species that have been introduced by humans to a new area. Where they invade they cause harm. For example, invasive species outcompete native species and reduce diversity, damage habitats, and interfere with human interests. Damage from invasive species costs the United States over $100 billion per year.

Scientists want to know, what makes an invasive species become such a problem once it is introduced? Is there something that is different for an invasive species compared to native species that have not been moved to a new area? Many things change for an invasive species when it is introduced somewhere new. For example, a plant that is moved across oceans may not bring enemies (like disease, predators, and herbivores) along for the ride. Now that the plant is in a new area with no enemies, it may do very well and become invasive.


Scientists at Michigan State University wanted to test whether invasive species are successful because they have escaped their enemies. They predicted invasive species would get less damage from enemies, compared to native species that still live near to their enemies. If native plants have tons of insects that can eat them, while an invasive plant has few or none, this would support enemy escape explaining invasiveness. However, if researchers find that native and invasive species have the same levels of herbivory, this would no support enemy escape. To test this hypothesis, a lab collected data on invasive and native plant species in Kalamazoo County. They measured how many insects were found on each species of plant, and the percent of leaves that had been damaged by insect herbivores. The data they collected is found below and can be used to test whether invasive plants are successful because they get less damage from insects compared to native plants.

Featured scientist: Elizabeth Schultheis from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.3

  • For a lesson plan on the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here.
  • For a great scientific paper discussing the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here.
  • The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a short video giving background on invasive species, here

Do insects prefer local or foreign foods?

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Centaurea stoebe.

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Centaurea stoebe.

The activities are as follows:

Insects that feed on plants, called herbivores, can have big effects on how plants grow. Herbivory can change the size and shape of plants, the number of flowers and seeds, and even which plant species can survive in a habitat. A plant with leaves eaten by herbivores will likely do worse than a plant that is not eaten.

Native plants are those that naturally occur in an area without human interference. When a plant is moved by humans to a new area and grows outside of its natural range, it is called exotic. Sometimes exotic plants become invasive, meaning they grow large and fast, take over habitats, and push out native species. What determines if an exotic species will become invasive? Scientists are very interested in this question. Understanding what makes a species become invasive could help control invasions already underway, and prevent new ones in the future.

Because herbivory affects how big and fast a plant can grow, herbivores may determine if an exotic plant is successful in its new habitat and becomes invasive. Elizabeth, a plant biologist, is fascinated by invasive species and wanted to know why they are able to grow bigger and faster than native and exotic species. She thought that invasive species might get less damage from herbivores, which would allow them to grow more and could explain how they become invasive.

To test this hypothesis, Elizabeth planted 25 native, 25 exotic, and 11 invasive species into a field in Michigan. This field was full of many plants and had many insect herbivores. The experimental plants grew from 2011-2013. Each year Elizabeth measured herbivory on 10 individuals of each of the 61 species, for a total of 610 plants! To measure herbivory she looked at the leaves on each plant and determined how much of each leaf was eaten by herbivores. She then compared the area that was eaten to the total area of the leaf, and calculated the proportion leaf area eaten by herbivores. Elizabeth predicted that invasive species would have a lower proportion of leaf area eaten, compared to native and non-invasive exotic plants.


Featured scientist: Elizabeth Schultheis from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below, as well as a link to access the full dataset from the study:

For two lesson plans covering the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here and here. For another great paper discussing the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here.

Aerial view of the experiments discussed in this activity:

ERH Field site 2