Plant functional traits reflect different dimensions of species invasiveness

Estibaliz Palma*, Peter A. Vesk, Matt White, John B. Baumgartner, Jane A. Catford

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Trait-based invasiveness studies typically categorize exotic species as invasive or noninvasive, implicitly assuming species form two homogenous groups. However, species can become invasive in different ways (e.g., high abundance, fast spread), likely relying on different functional traits to do so. As such, binary classification may obscure traits associated with invasiveness. We tested whether (1) the way in which invasiveness is quantified influences its correlation with functional traits and (2) different demography-based metrics are related to different sets of traits. Using a case study of 251 herbs exotic to Victoria, Australia, we quantified species’ invasiveness using 10 metrics: four continuous, demography-based dimensions of invasiveness (spread rate, local abundance, geographic and environmental range sizes) and six binary classifications of invasiveness (based on alternative sources and invasion criteria). We examined the correlation between species’ invasiveness and a set of four traits known to relate to plant demography and invasion. Then, we examined whether different demographic dimensions of invasiveness were better explained by different sets of traits. We found that the way invasiveness was quantified was important: different traits were linked with different invasiveness metrics, and some traits showed opposite effects across metrics. Species with fast spread were either tall with small seeds (i.e., good colonizers), or had heavy, animal-dispersed seeds. Plants with a large environmental range had greater plasticity for some traits. Locally abundant plants had low SLA and heavy seeds (i.e., strong competitors). Animal dispersal was also key to reach a large geographic range. No traits were consistently related to the six binary classifications. Our results indicate that exotic plants are invasive in different ways and rely on different combinations of traits to be so. Some traits (e.g., seed mass) had complex relationships with invasion: they apparently promote, hampered, or had no influence on different dimensions of invasiveness. Our findings are consistent with the notion that plant species use strategies that may be near optimal under some, but not all, ecological conditions. Compared to binary classifications of invasiveness, the use of invasiveness dimensions advances clearer hypothesis testing in invasion science.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere03317
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • demography metrics
  • dimensions of invasiveness
  • environmental and geographic range sizes
  • exotic plant invasion
  • invasiveness and invasive species
  • local abundance
  • plant functional traits
  • spread rate


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