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Rapid plant evolution in the presence of an introduced species alters community composition

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Because introduced species may strongly interact with native species and thus affect their fitness, it is important to examine how these interactions can cascade to have ecological and evolutionary consequences for whole communities. Here, we examine the interactions among introduced Rocky Mountain elk, Cervus canadensis nelsoni, a common native plant, Solidago velutina, and the diverse plant-associated community of arthropods. While introduced species are recognized as one of the biggest threats to native ecosystems, relatively few studies have investigated an evolutionary mechanism by which introduced species alter native communities. Here, we use a common garden design that addresses and supports two hypotheses. First, native S. velutina has rapidly evolved in the presence of introduced elk. We found that plants originating from sites with introduced elk flowered nearly 3 weeks before plants originating from sites without elk. Second, evolution of S. velutina results in a change to the plant-associated arthropod community. We found that plants originating from sites with introduced elk supported an arthropod community that had ~35 % fewer total individuals and a different species composition. Our results show that the impacts of introduced species can have both ecological and evolutionary consequences for strongly interacting species that subsequently cascade to affect a much larger community. Such evolutionary consequences are likely to be long-term and difficult to remediate.

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We thank B. Blake and P. Patterson at the Northern Arizona University research greenhouse, and the Nature Conservancy, especially Neil Chapman, for their assistance in establishing the common garden. Special thanks to D. and L. Monroy Solance. Comments by K. Whitney, A. McCall and two anonymous reviewers greatly improved the manuscript. The experiments comply with the current laws of the USA in which the experiments were performed. Funding was provided by National Science Foundation FIBR grant (DEB-0425908) and a National Science Foundation IGERT to D. S. S.

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The authors have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to David Solance Smith.

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Communicated by Jennifer A. Lau.

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Smith, D.S., Lau, M.K., Jacobs, R. et al. Rapid plant evolution in the presence of an introduced species alters community composition. Oecologia 179, 563–572 (2015).

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