Skip to main content

Environmental gradients influence differences in leaf functional traits between native and non-native plants


Determining the characteristics of non-native plants that can successfully establish and spread is central to pressing questions in invasion ecology. Evidence suggests that some non-native species establish and spread in new environments because they possess characteristics (functional traits) that allow them to either successfully compete with native residents or fill previously unfilled niches. However, the relative importance of out-competing native species vs. filling empty niche space as potential mechanisms of invasion may depend on environmental characteristics. Here, we measured plant functional traits, proxies indicative of competitive and establishment strategies, to determine if these traits vary among native and invasive species and if their prevalence is dependent on environmental conditions. Using a natural environmental gradient in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we evaluated how functional traits differ between native and non-native plant communities and if these differences change along an environmental gradient from hot, dry to cool, wet conditions. Functional trait differences suggested that both competition and open niche space may be important for invasion. Non-native communities tended to have traits associated with faster growth strategies such as higher specific leaf area and lower leaf thickness. However, native and non-native community traits became more dissimilar along the gradient, suggesting that non-native species may be occupying previously unfilled niche space at the hot, dry end of the gradient. We also found that most of the variation in functional trait values amongst plots was due to species turnover rather than intraspecific variation. These results highlight the role of environmental context when considering invasion mechanisms.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


Download references


Funding for this project was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey. The authors thank Ali Ainsworth for access and help with Inventory and Monitoring data and the Damschen Lab provided helpful comments. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE-1747503. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Support was also provided by the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Authorship order was determined using a “sequence determines credit” model. JJH and SGY conceived study design, JJH collected data and conducted analyses, all authors developed ideas and wrote paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jonathan J. Henn.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Communicated by Jennifer Funk.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 1056 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (XLSX 66kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Henn, J.J., Yelenik, S. & Damschen, E.I. Environmental gradients influence differences in leaf functional traits between native and non-native plants. Oecologia 191, 397–409 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Environmental gradient
  • Functional traits
  • Hawaiʻi
  • Invasion mechanisms