Late last year the journal Nature published an article by Katherine Suding called “A Leak in the Loop,” which discussed the findings from long-term observations of an invaded plant community in Hawai’i. (A report authored by the researchers can be found in the same issue of Nature.) Once introduced, exotic species can become invasive by modifying their surroundings in such a way that ensures their survival and spread. Examples include modifications to fire and disturbance regimes, nutrient cycles, hydrology, and soil microbe communities. This self-reinforcement strategy is called a positive feedback loop. However, positive feedback loops are not eternally stable and can at some point be interrupted by negative feedback. In the case of invasive species, these “leaks in the loop” can result in population declines and opportunities for restoration.
Back in the 1960’s, woodlands in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park that were traditionally dominated by Metrosideros polymorpha, a flowering evergreen tree in the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), were invaded by a perennial grass from Africa commonly known as molasses grass (Melinis minutiflora). Molasses grass was successful because its presence increased the frequency and size of fires which reduced populations of native plant species without negatively affecting itself. Additionally, accelerated nitrogen cycling rates resulted due to the presence of the exotic grass, which benefited the invader. But now things have changed.
Returning to these sites 50 years later, researches have discovered that nitrogen cycling rates have returned to pre-invasion levels. Since molasses grass requires high levels of nitrogen, it is now on the decline. What exactly caused this reduction in nitrogen availability is unclear. It could be because winter rains flush nitrogen from the soil, making it unavailable when the grass begins to actively grow again in the spring. Several years of reduced growth resulting from reduced nitrogen availability diminishes the grass’s initial contribution to accelerated nitrogen cycling, hence a breakdown in the positive feedback loop.
With the invader on the decline, the woodlands should be able to restore themselves. Ideally, anyway. Instead what the researchers observed is that another invader, Morella faya – a nitrogen fixing evergreen shrub from Europe, is moving in. Acacia koa, a native nitrogen fixing tree, is the ideal candidate for restoring these woodlands, however its seeds are heavy and don’t spread easily. Seeds of M. faya are bird-dispersed, and so they find their way into these sites first. In order to restore these sites and avoid further invasions, land managers must recognize when and where molasses grass is declining and start planting Acacia koa trees in large numbers, getting them established before M. faya arrives.
Acacia koa (photo credit: eol.org)
This research is important for anyone in the business of managing invaded plant communities. As Suding concludes in her article, “this new perspective will inform where and when we might best intervene in systems to capitalize on their changing dynamics.” Millions of dollars are spent each year in an attempt to reduce and ultimately eradicate invasive plant species. Long-term studies of invaded plant communities can help us recognize when the best times to employ restoration strategies might be. When we find a leak in the loop, we should take advantage of it, otherwise we may just be wasting resources.