Biological Invasions

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 861–875 | Cite as

Low resource availability limits weed invasion of tropical savannas

  • Harley R. Taylor
  • Ian J. Radford
  • Charles Price
  • Pauline Grierson
Original Paper


The savanna biome is one of the least invaded among global biomes, although the mechanisms underpinning its resistance to alien species relative to other biomes is not well understood. Invaders generally are at the resource acquisitive end of functional global plant trait variation and in low-resource savanna environments we might expect that successful invaders will only outperform native species under resource rich or highly disturbed conditions. However, invaders may also directly exploit resource stressed environments using resource conservative traits in some situations. It’s also possible that successful invaders and native species largely overlap in their trait profiles indicating site specific environmental factors are responsible for invader success in particular contexts rather than a general trait and functional divergence between invaders and native species. To address these various hypotheses, we compared a suite of morphological and physiological traits in graminoid and herbaceous native and co-occurring invasive plant species across a range of habitats in savannas of the Kimberley region of northern Australia. Invader grass species had traits associated with resource acquisition and fast growth rates, such as high SLA and leaf nutrient contents. In contrast, dominant native perennial grasses had traits characteristic of resource conservation and slow growth in resource stressed conditions. Trait profiles among invasive forbs and legumes exhibited stress tolerant traits relative to their native counterparts. Invaders also displayed strong divergence in reproductive traits, suggesting diverse responses to disturbance not indicated by leaf economic traits alone. These results suggest that savannas may be resistant to invaders with resource acquisitive traits due to their strong resource limitation.


Plant functional traits Plant strategies Plant invaders Disturbance Universal leaf trait economic spectrum Plant resources 



This project was funded by the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife. Sara Lock, Kate Bowler, Elizabeth Trevenen, Gerald Page, and Douglas Ford at The University of Western Australia assisted with laboratory work. We thank King Leopold National Park ranger, Rod O’Donnell, for his hospitality and knowledge in the west Kimberley, Scott Stephens for assistance with fieldwork and Matthew Barrett for invaluable help in identifying Kimberley plants. Thanks to Professor Bob Nowak and Dr Lora Perkins for providing the initial inspiration for this study and to Jennifer Funk and an anonymous reviewer for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

Supplementary material

10530_2017_1578_MOESM1_ESM.docx (19 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 18 kb)


  1. Ash AJ, McIvor JG (1998a) How season of grazing and herbivore selectivity influence monsoon tall-grass communities of northern Australia. J Veg Sci 9:123–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ash AJ, McIvor JG (1998b) Forage quality and feed intake responses of cattle to improved pastures, tree killing and stocking rate in open eucalypt woodlands of north-eastern Australia. J Agric Sci 131:211–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ash AJ, McIvor JG, Mott JJ, Andrew MH (1997) Building grass castles: integrating ecology and management of Australia’s tropical tallgrass rangelands. Rangel J 19:123–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bond WJ, Woodward FI, Midgley GF (2005) The global distribution of ecosystems in a world without fire. New Phytol 165:525–538CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Bowman DMJS (2005) Understanding a flammable planet—climate, fire and global vegetation patterns. New Phytol 165:341–345CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Bowman RA, Cole CV (1978) An exploratory method for fractionation of organic phosphorus from grassland soils. Soil Sci 125:95–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bowman DMJS, OBrian JA, Goldammer JG (2013) Pyrogeography and the global quest for sustainable fire management. Ann Rev Environ Resour 38:57–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brock J (2001) Native plants of Northern Australia. Reed, New HollandGoogle Scholar
  9. Brooks ML, D’Antonio CM, Richardson DM, Grace JB, Keeley JE, DiTomasso JM, Hobb RJ, Pellant M, Pyke D (2004) Effects of invasive alien plants on fire regimes. Bioscience 54:677–688CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bureau of Meteorology (2014a) Climate statistics for Australian locations: Kununurra Aero.
  11. Burke MJ, Grime JP (1996) An experimental study of plant community invasability. Ecology 77:776–790CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Caccianiga M, Luzzaro A, Pierce S et al (2006) The functional basis of a primary succession resolved by CSR classification. Oikos 112:10–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Clarke KR, Gorley RN (2006) PRIMER v6: user manual/tutorial. PRIMER-E, PlymouthGoogle Scholar
  14. Cowie and Werner (1993) Alien plant species invasive in Kakadu National Park, tropical northern Australia. Biol Conserv 63:105–194CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Crawley MJ, Harvey PH, Purvis ANDA (1996) Comparative ecology of the native and alien floras of the British Isles. Philos Trans R Soc B Biol Sci 351:1251–1259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cross EL, Green PT, Morgan JW (2015) A plant strategy approach to understand multidecadal change in community assembly processes in Australian grassy woodlands. J Ecol 103:1300–1307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Crowder S, Saggers B (2010) Grasses of the Northern Territory Savannas: a field guide. Greening Australia (NT) LtdGoogle Scholar
  18. D’Antonio CM, Vitousek PM (1992) Biological invasions by exotic grasses, the grass/fire cycle, and global change. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 23:63–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Daehler C (2003) Performance comparisons of co-occurring native and alien invasive plants: implications for conservation and restoration. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 34:183–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Davis MA, Grime PJ, Thompson K (2000) Fluctuating resources in plant communities: a general theory of invasability. J Ecol 88:528–534CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dawson W, Fischer M, van Kleunen M (2012) Common and rare plant species respond differently to fertilisation and competitors, whether they are alien or native. Ecol Lett 15:873–880CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Fan J, Harris W (1996) Effects of soil fertility level and cutting frequency on interference among Hieracium pilosella, H. praealtum, Rumex acetosella, and Festuca novae-zelandiae. N. Z. J Agric Res 39:1–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Funk JL (2013) The physiology of invasive plants in low-resource environments. Conserv Physiol. doi: 10.1093/conphys/cot026 PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  24. Funk JL, Vitousek PM (2007) Resource-use efficiency and plant invasion in low-resource systems. Nature 446:1079–1081CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Funk JL, Standish RJ, Stock WD, Valladares F (2016) Plant functional traits of dominant native and invasive species in mediterranean-climate. Ecosystems 97:75–83Google Scholar
  26. Grice AC (2006) The impacts of invasive plant species on the biodiversity of Australian rangelands. Range J 28:27–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Grierson PF, Adams MA (2000) Plant species affect acid phosphatase, ergosterol and microbial P in a Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata Donn ex Sm.) forest in south-western Australia. Soil Biol Biochem 32:1817–1827CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Grime JP (1977) Evidence for the existence of three primary strategies in plants and its relevance to ecological and evolutionary theory. Am Nat 111:1169–1194CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Grime JP, Thompson K, Hunt R et al (1997) Integrated screening validates primary axes of specialisation in plants. Oikos 79:259–281CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hendry GA, Grime JP (eds) (1993) Methods in comparative plant ecology: a laboratory manual. Springer, NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  31. Hodgson JG, Wilson PJ, Hunt R et al (1999) Allocating C-S-R plant functional types: a soft approach to a hard problem. Oikos 85:282–294CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Holt JA, Coventry RJ (1990) Nutrient cycling in Australian savannas. J Biogeogr 17:427–432CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hunt LP, McIvor JG, Grice AC, Bray SG (2014) Principles and guidelines for managing cattle grazing in the grazing lands of northern Australia: stocking rates, pasture resting, prescribed fire, paddock size and water points—a review. Rangel J 36:105–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Huston MA (2004) Management strategies for plant invasions: manipulating productivity, disturbance, and competition. Divers Distrib 10:167–178CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kean L, Price O (2003) The extent of mission grasses and gamba grass in the darwin region of Australia’s Northern Territory. Pac Conserv Biol 8:281–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Keir AF, Vogler WD (2006) A review of current knowledge of the weedy species Themeda quadrivalvis (grader grass). Trop Grassl 40:193Google Scholar
  37. Kuo S (1996) Methods of soil analysis. Part 3. Chemical methods, vol 5. Soil Science Society of America, Madiso, pp 869–919Google Scholar
  38. Kutt AS, Fisher, A (2010) Ant assemblages change with increasing dominance of an exotic pasture grass in a tropical savanna woodland. Ecol Manag Restor 11:67–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kutt AS, Fisher A (2011) Increased grazing and dominance of an exotic pasture (Bothriochloa pertusa) affects vertebrate fauna species composition, abundance and habitat in savanna woodland. Rangel J 33:49–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Leishman MR, Thomson VP (2005) Experimental evidence for the effects of additional water, nutrients and physical disturbance on invasive plants in low fertility Hawkesbury Sandstone soils, Sydney, Australia. J Ecol 93:38–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Leishman MR, Thomson VP, Cooke J (2010) Native and exotic invasive plants have fundamentally similar carbon capture strategies. J Ecol 98:28–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lloret F, Médail F, Brundu G, Camarda I, Moragues EVA, Rita J, Hulme PE (2005) Species attributes and invasion success by alien plants on Mediterranean islands. J Ecol 93:512–520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lonsdale WM (1994) Inviting trouble: introduced pasture species in northern Australia. Aust J Ecol 19:345–354CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lonsdale WM (1999) Global patterns of plant invasions and the concept of invisibility. Ecology 80:1522–1536CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. McIvor JG (2007) Pasture management in semi-arid tropical woodlands: dynamics of perennial grasses. Rangel J 29:87–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. McIvor JG, Gardener CJ (1995) Pasture management in semi-arid tropical woodlands: effects on herbage yields and botanical composition. Anim Prod Sci 35:705–715CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Milson J (2000) Pasture plants of north-west Queensland. Queensland Department of Primary Industries, BrisbaneGoogle Scholar
  48. Olff H, Ritchie ME, Prins HHT (2002) Global environmental controls of diversity in large herbivores. Nature 415:901–904CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Paul D, Skrzypek G, Fórizs I (2007) Normalization of measured stable isotopic compositions to isotope reference scales–a review. Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom 21:3006–3014CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Perkins LB, Nowak RS (2013) Invasion syndromes: hypotheses on relationships among invasive species attributes and characteristics of invaded sites. J Arid Lands 5:275–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Perrins J, Fitter A, Williamson M (1993) Population biology and rates of invasion of three introduced Impatiens species in the British Isles. J Biogeogr 20:33–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Petheram RJ, Kok B (1983) Plants of the kimberley region of Western Australia. University of Western Australia Press, CrawleyGoogle Scholar
  53. Pierce S, Brusa G, Vagge I, Cerabolini BE (2013) Allocating CSR plant functional types: the use of leaf economics and size traits to classify woody and herbaceous vascular plants. Funct Ecol 27:1002–1010CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Preece N, Harvey K, Hempel C, Woinarski JCZ (2010) Uneven distribution of weeds along extensive transects in Australia’s Northern Territory points to management solutions. Ecol Manag Restor 11:127–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Pyšek P, Richardson DM (2008) Traits associated with invasiveness in alien plants: where do we stand? In: Biological invasions. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg, pp 97–125Google Scholar
  56. Radford IJ (2013) Fluctuating resources, disturbance and plant strategies: diverse mechanisms underlying plant invasion. J Arid Land 5:284–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Radford IJ, Cousens RD (2000) Invasiveness and comparative life-history traits of exotic and indigenous Senecio species in Australia. Oecologia 125:531–542CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Radford IJ, Dickinson KJM, Lord JM (2006) Nutrient stress and performance of invasive Hieracium lepidulum and co-occurring species in New Zealand. Basic Appl Ecol 7:320–333CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Radford IJ, Dickinson KJM, Lord JM (2010) Does disturbance, competition or resource limitation underlie Hieracium lepidulum invasion in New Zealand? Mechanisms of establishment and persistence, and functional differentiation among invasive and native species. Austral Ecol 35:282–293CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Reich PB, Wright IJ, Cavender-Bares J, Craine JM, Oleksyn J, Westoby M, Walters MB (2003) The evolution of plant functional variation: traits, spectra, and strategies. Int J Plant Sci 164:143–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Rejmanek M, Richardson DM (1996) What attributes make some plant species more invasive? Oecologia 77:1655–1661Google Scholar
  62. Rossiter NA, Setterfield SA, Douglas MM, Hutley LB (2003) Testing the grass-fire cycle: alien grass invasion in the tropical savannas of Northern Australia. Divers Distrib 9:169–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Rossiter-Rachor NA, Setterfield SA, Douglas MM, Hutley LB, Cook GD, Schmidt S (2009) Invasive Andropogon gayanus (gamba grass) is an ecosystem transformer of nitrogen relations in Australian savanna. Ecol Appl 19:1546–1560CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Russell-Smith J, Yates C, Edwards A, Allan GE, Cook GD, Cooke P, Smith R (2003) Contemporary fire regimes of northern Australia, 1997–2001: change since aboriginal occupancy, challenges for sustainable management. Int J Wildland Fire 12:283–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Sankaran M, Hanan NP, Scholes RJ et al (2005) Determinants of woody cover in African savannas. Nature 438:846–849CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Setterfield SA, Rossiter-Rachor NA, Hutley LB, Douglas MM, Williams RJ (2010) Biodiversity research: turning up the heat: the impacts of Andropogon gayanus (gamba grass) invasion on fire behaviour in northern Australian savannas. Divers Distrib 16:854–861CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Skrzypek G, Sadler R, Paul D (2010) Error propagation in normalization of stable isotope data: a Monte Carlo analysis. Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom 24:2697–2705CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Smith NM (2002) Weeds of the wet/dry tropics of Australia: a field guide. Environment Centre NT I, Darwin CityGoogle Scholar
  69. Speck NH, Bradley J, Lazarides M, Twidale CR, Slatyer RO, Stewart GA, Patterson RA (2010) No. 4 The lands and pastoral resources of the North Kimberley Area, W.A. Land Res Surv 1:1–116Google Scholar
  70. Tabassum S, Leishman MR (2016) Trait values and not invasive status determine competitive outcomes between native and invasive species under varying soil nutrient availability. Austral Ecol 41:875–885CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Tecca PA, Diaz S, Cabido M, Urcelay C (2009) Functional traits of alien plants across contrasting climatic and land-use regimes: do aliens join the locals or try harder than them? J Ecol 98:17–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Thompson K (2014) Where do camels belong? The story and science of invasive species. Profile Books Ltd, LondonGoogle Scholar
  73. Thompson K, Hodgson JG, Rich TCG (1995) Native and alien invasive plants: more of the same? Ecography 18:390–402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Thompson K, Hodgson JG, Grime JP, Burke MJ (2001) Plant traits and temporal scale: evidence from a 5-year invasion experiment using native species. J Ecol 89:1054–1060CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Vigilante T, Bowman DM, Fisher R, Russell-Smith J, Yates C (2004) Contemporary landscape burning patterns in the far North Kimberley region of north-west Australia: human influences and environmental determinants. J Biogeogr 31:1317–1333CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Vila M, Weiner J (2004) Are invasive plant species better competitors than native plant species? Evidence from pair-wise experiments. Oikos 105:229–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wright IJ, Reich PB, Westoby M, Ackerly DD, Baruch Z, Bongers F et al (2004) The worldwide leaf economics spectrum. Nature 428:821–827CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Plant BiologyUniversity of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  2. 2.Department of Parks and WildlifeKununurraAustralia

Personalised recommendations