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Drought-tolerance of an invasive alien tree, Acacia mearnsii and two native competitors in fynbos riparian ecotones

Abstract

Invasive alien plants (IAPs) have successfully invaded many riparian zones in South Africa, especially Australian Acacia spp. which are prevalent along riverbanks in the south-western Cape of South Africa. This Mediterranean-type climate region is predicted to endure severe future water shortages under likely scenarios of increased population growth and climate change, and IAPs aggravate this problem due to their profligate water use. Acacia mearnsii competes aggressively with native species, however, it remains unclear what physiological advantage the species has over co-occurring native species under the predicted reduced streamflow scenarios. A mechanistic approach was used to investigate how key native fynbos riparian woody tree species compare in vulnerability to drought-induced cavitation against A. mearnsii by comparing findings from three Mediterranean-type fynbos river systems that differ in streamflow. A. mearnsii showed lower water potential at 50% hydraulic conductivity loss (P50 values) compared to native species at certain sites, an indication of drought-tolerance. This suggests it is likely to persist under future drier conditions and it therefore remains a top priority for control. The native Brabejum stellatifolium had consistently higher water potentials across all sites than the other studied species, and is a potentially valuable species for restoration of south-western Cape riparian zones. Consistency in the shapes of species vulnerability curves across sites illustrated a species-specific hydraulic response to different water availability, strengthening the argument that this approach to distinguish site-level drought-tolerance between trees is a practical technique, with great application in understanding future geographic distribution under climate change, and potential for use in restoration research. Additionally, streamflow was an inaccurate predictor of species drought-tolerance along these riparian systems.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the Working for Water programme and the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University for funding, Cape Nature for a research permit (no. AAA008-00022-0028), and the Department of Water Affairs and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research for streamflow data. Also to all private landowners for access to their properties, and to Cheryl Swift, Dave le Maitre and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript, and Martin Kidd for guidance with statistical analysis.

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Correspondence to Casparus J. Crous.

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Crous, C.J., Jacobs, S.M. & Esler, K.J. Drought-tolerance of an invasive alien tree, Acacia mearnsii and two native competitors in fynbos riparian ecotones. Biol Invasions 14, 619–631 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-011-0103-y

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Keywords

  • Invasive alien plant
  • Water potential
  • Carbon isotope
  • Restoration
  • Streamflow
  • Xylem cavitation