Scale-area curves: a tool for understanding the ecology and distribution of invasive tree species
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Scale-area curves are increasingly used in ecology to predict population trajectories, based on the assumption that observed patterns are indicative of population dynamics. However, for introduced species, scale-area curves might be strongly influenced by introduction history. We examined the spatial structure of an invasive tree species (Acacia elata; Fabaceae) introduced to South Africa as an ornamental plant and compared our findings with previous work done on a species introduced for dune stabilization (A. longifolia). A fractal sampling method was used to map the occupancy of A. elata at twelve spatial scales for ten quarter-degree grid cells throughout South Africa. Based on the fractal dimension (Dij) calculated at different spatial scales we found that populations were more contiguous at plot (2.5–25 m) and regional scales (2.5–25 km) than at local and landscape scales (0.025–2.5 km). We argue that the lack of contiguous A. elata populations over 250 m to 2.5 km is not indicative of a low risk, but the result of the spatial structure of available land in suburban environments. When working with introduced species, scale-area curves representing fragmented populations at the edge of invasions should not be considered to indicate a lack of invasive spread/threat. Rather they can be used to identify ‘‘missing links’’ in the invasive introduction-naturalization-invasion continuum, but only if the life-history traits, introduction history, and area suitable for invasion are well understood and are used in interpreting the results. We suggest that their greatest value will lie in their use as a method for long-term monitoring of introduced species.