Plasticity and genetic diversity may allow saltcedar to invade cold climates in North America

Jason P. Sexton, John K. McKay, Anna Sala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

229 Scopus citations


Two major mechanisms have been proposed to explain the ability of introduced populations to colonize over large habitat gradients, despite significant population bottlenecks during introduction: (1) Broad environmental tolerance - successful invaders possess life history traits that confer superior colonizing ability and/or phenotypic plasticity, allowing acclimation to a wide range of habitats. (2) Local adaptation - successful invaders rapidly adapt to local selective pressures. However, even with bottlenecks, many introduced species exhibit surprisingly high levels of genetic variation and thus the potential for evolutionary increases in invasive traits and plasticity. Here we assess the invasive potential of Tamarix ramosissima, by examining the degree of genetic differentiation within and among populations from the latitudinal extremes of its introduced range. Using growth chamber experiments we examined ecologically important variation in seedlings, both in trait means and their reaction norms across temperature environments. Although we found no genetic variation for gas exchange traits, within or among populations, we did find significant genetic variation for growth traits, both in the trait means and in the degree of plasticity in these traits. Northern ecotypes invested more in roots relative to southern ecotypes but only under low temperatures. Both ecotypes increased shoot investment in warm temperatures. Increased root investment in cold temperatures by northern ecotypes may increase their first winter survival. Genetic differences in seedling root investment may contribute to the ability of this species to successfully tolerate and invade a broader latitudinal range. Our data support a model in which both plasticity and adaptive evolution can contribute to the invasive potential of introduced species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1652-1660
Number of pages9
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2002


  • Ecological genetics
  • Ecotypes
  • Invasive potential
  • Invasiveness
  • Local adaptation
  • Plasticity
  • Root mass ratio
  • Saltcedar
  • Tamarix ramosissima


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