If invaders do better by early arrival and growing, will native species also benefit from being early? Not necessarily, as found in the Early View paper “Priority effects vary with species identity and origin in an experiment varying the timing of seed arrival” by Elsa E. Cleland and co-workers. Below is their summary of the study and a photo of the students helping out with field work.
Studies show that exotic species differ in phenology (i.e. are active at different times in the season) from the native species in the communities they invade. In Southern California many of our common invaders are exotic annual grasses and forbs that germinate earlier with the onset of winter rains than native herbaceous species. Hence, exotic species might benefit from emerging earlier in the season, allowing them to pre-empt space and other resources to suppress later emerging species, a kind of seasonal priority effect. We tested this hypothesis in an experiment varying the “arrival” time of pairs of species, by placing seeds of focal species into pots of field-collected soil either simultaneously or one week apart. In contrast to our expectations, native species benefited from earlier arrival more often than exotic species. An important implication of this finding is that giving native species a long “head start” likely aids in ecological restoration efforts.
Then, if being active early is so beneficial, why don’t native species have earlier phenology? Isn’t there sufficient selective pressure to favor earlier phenology in native species? Two additional aspects of our experiment support this idea. First, our results show that different species have various strength and even direction of priority effects. In diverse communities where the identity of neighbors will differ among individuals in the population, this could dampen directional selection on phenology. Second, we found that no significant disadvantage to arriving later when compared to being planted at the same time as a competitor. Thus, for native species that tend to have later emergence time than exotic competitors, there seem not to earlier emergence, as this still exposes them to similar levels of competition.
A final aspect of our experiment that is noteworthy; it was planted and harvested by 36 students enrolled in an undergraduate Ecology Lab course at the University of California, San Diego taught by the lead author (the co-authors on this manuscript were the Teaching Assistants for the course). Teaching evaluations and surveys showed that the students enjoyed contributing to original research, and the amount of preparation and oversight necessary to ensure data quality was not much greater than for any of the other lab activities where data were not destined for publication; a clear “win-win” for both the faculty and the students. Hence, our results demonstrate the synergies can arise by merging undergraduate teaching with faculty research programs.