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Parallel functional differentiation of an invasive annual plant on two continents

Broadly distributed species encompass populations spread across habitats that vary in their climatic, edaphic and biotic environmental characteristics. The success of broadly distributed species across a wide range of environmental conditions is, in part, determined by their ability to maintain fitness and positive population growth rates across the range of local environmental conditions encountered by individual populations. Rapid local adaptation frequently occurs during the spread of invading species. It remains unclear, however, how consistent, and therefore potentially predictable, such patterns of local adaptation are.

Erodium cicutarium plants from 19 sites in California and Chile growing together in a glasshouse experiment. Image credit: Latimer et al.

In a recent article published in AoBP, Latimer et al. addressed this question in the invasive annual plant Erodium cicutarium (redstem storksbill). Originally from Europe, E. cicutarium spread across both North and South America. The plant grows in diverse habitats from deserts to mountaintops. The question is, has it evolved to grow differently in different habitats during these invasions, and do such differences help it spread? By experimentally growing seeds from many sites in California and Chile, Latimer et al. discovered strong local genetic differences: plants from dry areas “live fast and die young,” flowering weeks earlier than plants from wetter areas. Patterns of local differences among Chilean populations matched those in California, suggesting this species evolves in predictable ways as it spreads.

Written by William Salter

William (Tam) Salter is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and Sydney Institute of Agriculture at the University of Sydney. He has a bachelor degree in Ecological Science (Hons) from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD in plant ecophysiology from the University of Sydney. Tam is interested in the identification and elucidation of plant traits that could be useful for ecosystem resilience and future food security under global environmental change. He also has an active interest in effective scientific communication.

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