Invasive Australian acacias: reproductive biology and effects on native plant-pollinator communities in Cape fynbos
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My master’s research combines aspects of pollination biology and invasion biology to explore the invasive predictors and impacts of a globally invasive group of plants – Australian acacias. Specifically, I investigate the role of reproductive biology in their invasion success (Chapter 2), the impacts of a specific species, Acacia saligna, on native plant-pollinator communities in South Africa (Chapter 3), and if the impact of A. saligna on native plant species can be predicted, based on floral trait similarity (Chapter 4). Australian acacias possess many floral traits implicated in plant invasion success, including extensive, dense floral displays, prolific seed production, long-lived seed banks, and propensity for vegetative reproduction. In Chapter 2 of my thesis, co-authors and I investigate if such reproductive traits influence whether or not a species becomes invasive once it is introduced by qualitatively and quantitatively analyzing literature and data collected from published and unpublished data. We found that invasive species reach reproductive maturity earlier and are more commonly able to resprout. Our findings have important implications for management of existing Acacia invasions as well as the assessment and prevention of further introductions of Acacia species leading to invasion. Impacts of invasive plant species on native plant visitation and consequent reproduction are often negative and have important implications for future ecosystem health. Acacia saligna is a problematic woody invasive shrub in many Mediterranean regions, and in South Africa, it invades fynbos vegetation, which boasts one of the highest plant diversities per area in the world as well as many specialized pollination mutualisms. It blooms during the flowering peak of most native species and forms dense, showy floral displays, thus the possibility of pollinator-mediated interactions with co-flowering native species is high. In Chapter 3, I assess the impact of flowering A. saligna on insect visitation to co-flowering native species by conducting flower observations at both an invaded and uninvaded (control) site. One of the native species most-visited by native honeybees, Roepera fulva, had high flower visitor overlap with A. saligna and suffered significantly lower visitation from all insects and from honeybees when A. saligna was present than at the control site. The native honeybee appears to be the most important visitor to A. saligna as it was the most frequent and mobile. Due to its foraging efficiency and dominance in pollinator communities, Apis mellifera subsp. capensis could be an important mediator of the negative effect of A. saligna on co-flowering natives, especially those frequently visited by honeybees. The use of floral traits as predictors of a species’ effect on co-flowering plants via pollination is commonly used in pollination biology. In the fourth chapter of my thesis, I apply the predictive principle of floral traits on flower visitation to see if floral traits can predict the impact of an invasive plant species on co-flowering native species, and if so, which floral traits are the most important. Following the same flower observation protocol as Chapter 3, I compare assess two measures of invasion impact on native flowers – change in visitation rate to native plant species between invaded and uninvaded sites and flower visitor overlap between A. saligna and native species – and test for a correlation with floral trait similarity of native species to and A. saligna. Similarity of categorical traits and all traits combined (categorical and continuous) were significantly positively correlated with flower visitor overlap, indicating that native species with categorical traits similar to A. saligna were more likely to share flower visitors with A. saligna. Floral symmetry and shape similarity were the most important categorical traits in driving flower visitor overlap. Findings suggest an important link between categorical floral traits and ability to predict invasive plant impact on native flower-insect interactions; however, more comprehensive studies are required for conclusive results.