Ecologists, like epidemiologists, are often confronted with the challenge of trying to determine causality by piecing together bits of information observed in nature. When the presence or absence of a species at a site is affected by the characteristics of the environment and community, the availability and dispersal success of propagules, stochastic events and the peculiarities of the species itself, it can be very difficult to isolate the likely mechanisms that lead to the occurrence – or lack thereof – of a particular species, especially when the influential factors are highly correlated.
Experiments are obviously made for getting around such problems; by controlling and isolating one factor at a time, the relative importance of different factors can be quantified. However, experiments are not always possible, desirable or ethical. Take plant invasions along rivers, for example: they occur at large spatial and temporal scales; many factors may drive the invasion process; introducing and augmenting the supply of invasive species is unpalatable and likely prohibited; plus, river environments are very hard to control and manipulate, as any manager will tell you. So, if we are limited to potentially confounded survey data, how can we more effectively identify the drivers of plant invasion so that we know which factors to target in weed management?
In a paper recently published in Diversity and Distributions, my colleagues and I contend that incorporating data about species characteristics into survey-based approaches provides an additional line of evidence that can be used to improve inferences drawn from patterns. We illustrate how using information about environmental gradients, species distributions and species characteristics can increase understanding of ecological phenomena – here, riparian plant invasion, which can help inform management responses.
Using this approach, we find that, of four hypotheses examined, hydrological modification (indicated by flood magnitude) most likely drives invasion in River Murray wetlands. Flow regulation may inhibit native species adapted to the historical hydrological regime, facilitating exotic species with different environmental ranges. A symptom of environmental change, invasion may have been exacerbated by drought, although it is unclear why.
There was no indication that human-increased propagule pressure or colonisation ability facilitated invasion. Exotic cover was unrelated to proximity to towns, recent flood frequency and cattle grazing intensity. Additionally, similar proportions of exotic and native species were used in cultivation and, despite a higher proportion of exotics being known weeds, weed status was unrelated to exotic species occupancy. Overall, colonisation ability was unrelated to species’ origin or response to water depth and hydrological change. Although exotics had higher specific leaf area and shorter longevity (indicative of higher colonisation ability), they had heavier (not lighter) seeds and did not differ in height from natives.
Based on our findings, we conclude that (i) using environmental flows to reinstate mid-range floods and (ii) augmenting the propagule supply of native species with characteristics suitable for modified conditions may help limit invasion in these wetlands.