The role of geographic origin and life history stages in invasion ecology : a comparative assessment of Northern European, Ponto-Caspian and North American species

The biological composition of most of the earth’s major ecosystems is being dramatically changed by human activities. The breakdown of natural barriers, as a consequence of an increasingly connected world, has contributed to a rise in biological invasions worldwide with thousands of non-indigenous species established in freshwater, brackish, and marine ecosystems. Identifying traits correlated with invasion success is a central goal in invasion ecology to predict and prevent future invasions. This dissertation is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 gives a general introduction to the main topic of the thesis, including invasion ecology and possible determinant factors that might influence invasion success such as geographic origin and life history stages. Furthermore, it also explores the influence of experimental design on results in ecology. In Chapter 2, I question the role of geographic origin on invasion success, specifically, whether Ponto-Caspian species are better able to acclimatize to and colonize habitats across a range of salinities than taxa from Northern European and North American regions. The experiments, using eight gammarid species native to those three regions, demonstrated that although species from all three tested regions indicated high tolerance to a wide range of salinities, significant differences in the direction of salinity tolerance were observed among the regions, with Northern European species having a better survival in higher salinities, and Ponto-Caspian species in lower salinities. Therefore, it is important to consider geographic origin as a predictor of invasion success because it might foresee pre-adaptation of certain species due to its evolutionary history. Following these findings, in Chapter 3, I further compare the salinity tolerance of adults and juveniles of three gammarid species originating from Northern European, the Ponto-Caspian and North American regions to determine whether juveniles tolerate salinity changes equally well as adults. During the invasion process, individuals must overcome several challenges and be able to survive and reproduce to establish a successful population. Thus, the role of life history stages in the context of invasion ecology is important to consider. While experimental results determined that both adults and juveniles of all three species endured wide ranges of salinity, juveniles tolerated a narrower salinity range than their parents. The evidence from this study emphasizes the importance of testing several life history stages when constructing models to predict future invasions. In Chapter 4, bearing in mind that the approaches used to test scientific questions may differ not only in spatial scale but also in ecological complexity, I explored how the type of experiment (i.e., scale and ecological complexity) affects the outcome and to what extent the two types of experiments are comparable. Two experiments differing in size and ecological-complexity (i.e. outdoor large-scale community-level mesocosm vs. indoor small-scale two-species laboratory experiment), were conducted to assess the effects of marine heatwaves on two gammarid species. The results revealed that while for one species the population growth was similar independently of the size and ecological-complexity, for the other species, the inclusion of the community seemed to have benefited the species’ growth rate, demonstrating stronger performance in the mesocosm than in the laboratory experiment. These results suggest the importance of biotic interactions and complexity of natural environments in buffering or boosting the effects of environmental stress on organisms while carrying out ecological experiments. Finally, Chapter 5 summarizes the findings from all experiments and concludes that not only geographic origin and life history stages need to be considered in invasion ecology, but also the approach when selecting our experimental designs to answer research questions.


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