Testing the tolerance of invasive plants

Casey out in the field.

The activities are as follows:

Casey is a biologist who grew up with dogs as pets. His dogs were all the same species and had some things in common – they all had a tail, ears, and fur. But, each dog also had its own unique appearance – tail length, ear shape, and fur color. These things are called traits. Casey became interested in how slight differences in traits make individuals unique. 

As Casey observed in dogs, not all individuals in the same species are exactly alike. This is also true in plants. When we look closely at individual plants of the same species, we often see that each is slightly different from the next. Some grow faster. Some have more leaves than others. Some are better at defending themselves against herbivoresthat might eat them. 

People move species around the globe, and some of these species cause problems where they are introduced. These trouble-making species are called invasive species. Casey wanted to apply what he knew about trait differences to the environment around him, so he chose to study invasive plants and their traits. He wants to know what it is about invasive species that make them able to invade. Casey thought that maybe certain traits cause invasive species to be more troublesome than others. The individual plants that have invaded other parts of the world might have different traits that made them successful in that environment. Plants in their new invasive range might be slightly different than plants in the native range where they came from.  

Along with other members of his lab, Casey is studying an invasive plant species called burr clover. The lab collected seeds of burr clover from all different parts of the world. Some of the seeds came from the native range around the Mediterranean Sea (e.g. Italy, France, and Morocco) and some came from areas where they are invasive (e.g. Japan, Brazil, and the United States). The plants from the invasive range have already proven that they can invade new areas. Studying traits in native and invasive ranges would allow Casey to learn more about how those individuals invaded in the first place. Because Casey thought trait differences might have caused certain individuals of burr clover to become invasive, he predicted that individuals from the invasive range would have different traits than those from the native range. 

Casey’s field site where he studies Burr Clover

The lab decided to look at one trait in particular – how much an individual plant was affected by herbivores, which is called tolerance. The most tolerant individuals can still grow and produce fruits, even when herbivores eat a lot of their tissue. Casey thought that individuals from the invasive range would be more tolerant than individuals from the native range. One reason the invading individuals may have been successful is that they were more tolerant of herbivores in their new environment.The fruits contain seeds that make new plants, so plants that make more fruits can invade more easily. If individuals from the invasive range can make more fruits, even when herbivores are around, then they may reproduce and spread more quickly. 

So, Casey and his lab collected seeds from 22 individual plants from the native range and 22 individual plants from the invasive range. Each plant produces many seeds, so they collected several seeds from each individual. They created 24 2×2-meter plots in a field in California. Into each plot they planted 2-4 seeds from each individual plant and the seeds were planted in a random order in each plot. In all, there were 3,349 plants! In half of the plots, they removed any insects that might eat the plants. To do this they randomly chose half of the plots and sprayed them with insecticide, which kills insects. They sprayed the other half of the plots with water as a control. They wanted to know how many fruits were made by plants under good conditions so they could compare to plants that are being eaten by herbivores. After the plants grew all spring, they measured how many small, spiky fruits each plant produced. They compared how many fruits each plant produced in the plots with insects and the plots without insects. 

Featured scientist: Casey terHorst from California State University, Northridge

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.3

Won’t you be my urchin?

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The activities are as follows:

Éste Data Nugget también está disponible en Español:

Imagine you are snorkeling on a coral reef where you can see many species living together. Some animals, like sharks, are predators that eat other animals. Other species, like anemones and the fish that live in them, are mutualists and protect each other from predators. There are also herbivores, like urchins, that eat plants and algae on the reef. All of these species, and many more, need the coral reef to survive.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Corals are the animals that build coral reefs. They are very sensitive and can be hurt by human activity, like boating and pollution. Corals reef ecosystems are also in danger from warming waters due to climate change. Sadly, today many coral reefs around the world are dying because the places they grow are changing. Sarah is a marine biologist who is determined to figure out ways to save coral reefs. Sarah wants to understand how to help the dying corals so they can keep building the important and diverse coral reef habitats.

Corals compete with large types of algae, like seaweed, for space to grow on the reef. Corals are picky and only like to live in certain places. If there is too much algae, corals will have no place to attach and grow. Sea urchins are important herbivores and one of the species that like to eat algae. Sarah thought that when urchins are present on the reef, corals will have less competition from algae for space, and thus more room to grow. Maybe adding urchins to a coral reef is a way to help corals!

To test her idea Sarah set up an experiment. She set 8 bins out on the reef. Into half of the bins, Sarah added urchins. Into the other half she left without urchins as a control. Sarah put tiles into all of the bins. Tiles gave an empty space for coral and algae to compete and grow. After a few months, Sarah looked at the tiles. She counted how many corals were growing on each tile. Sarah predicted that more corals would grow on the tiles in bins with sea urchins compared to the control bins with no sea urchins.

B. Photograph of Agaricia juvenile on experimental substratum. C. Photograph of Porites juvenile on experimental substratum

B. Photograph of coral species Agaricia juvenile on experimental tile. C. Photograph of coral species Porites juvenile on experimental tile.

Featured scientist: Sarah W. Davies from University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 6.5

There is one scientific paper associated with the research in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below.

Davies SW, MV Matz, PD Vize (2013) Ecological Complexity of Coral Recruitment Processes: Effects of Invertebrate Herbivores on Coral Recruitment and Growth Depends Upon Substratum Properties and Coral Species. PLOS ONE 8(9):e72830

After students have completed the Data Nugget, you can have them discuss the management implications of this research. Watch the news story below and have students consider how urchins can be used as a management tool to help restore coral reefs!

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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.

laulab

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 insect herbivores will likely do worse than a plant that is not eaten.

Plants that naturally grow in an area without human interference are called native plants. When a plant is moved by humans to a new area and lives and grows outside of its natural range, it is called an exotic plant. 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, local herbivores may determine if an exotic plant thrives 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 other exotic species. One possibility, she thought, is that invasive species are not recognized by the local insect herbivores as good food sources and thus get less damage from the insects. Escaping herbivory could allow invasive species to grow more and may explain how they become invasive.

To test this hypothesis, Elizabeth planted 25 native, 25 exotic, and 11 invasive species in a field in Michigan. This field was already full of many plants and had many insect herbivores. The experimental plants grew from 2011 to 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 noninvasive exotic plants.

ERHpics

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

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