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Invasive Plants Adapt for New Climates
Change Ecology When Crossing Continents


Abutilon theophrasti, commonly called velvetleaf, is one of more than 800 invasive plants found to change its ecology to adapt to a new climate. Velvetleaf is native to southern Asia, but was introduced to North America in the 18th century. It has since invaded the eastern and Midwestern United States. Credit: Patrick J. Alexander, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

A recently published study conducted by Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University scientists found that invasive species adapt their ecology when moving to a different climate than their native range.

Previously, small studies had supported the supposition that the climate limitations of plants do not change, only allowing them to grow in areas of a certain climate. But in testing 815 species, climactic niche shifts were found in 65-100% of the species, depending on how the shifts were measured - meaning that nearly all of these plants are able to adapt to thrive in a new climate.

"Individual species responses were idiosyncratic, but we generally saw that niche shifts reflected changes in climate availability at the continent scale and were largest in long-lived and cultivated species," the study says. "Overall, the climactic niches of terrestrial plant species were not conserved as they crossed continents."

Usually, researchers use native range data to forecast the potential range of an invasive species. But the discovery that most species are changing their ecology to adapt to different climate ranges poses a problem for this practice. The use of biocontrols - introducing a new species to combat the invasive one - may be undermined by the ecological changes in the invasive species.

The scientists are hoping that with further study, they can better predict the potential geographic range of invasive species.

The full study is available for purchase at

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August 21, 2019, 1:26 am PDT

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