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Anthropogenic-based regional-scale factors most consistently explain plot-level exotic diversity in grasslands

Andrew S. MacDougall, Joseph R. Bennett, Jennifer Firn, Eric W. Seabloom, Elizabeth T. Borer, Eric M. Lind, John L. Orrock, W. Stanley Harpole, Yann Hautier,, Peter B. Adler, Elsa Cleland, Kendi Davies, Brett Melbourne, Suzanne M. Prober, Jonathan D. Bakker, Philip A. Fay, Virginia L. Jin, Amy Kendig, Kimberly J. La Pierre, Joslin Moore, John Morgan and Carly J. Stevens
Aim: Evidence linking the accumulation of exotic species to the suppression of native diversity is equivocal, often relying on data from studies that have used different methods. Plot-level studies often attribute inverse relationships between native and exotic diversity to competition, but regional abiotic filters, including anthropogenic influences, can produce similar patterns. We seek to test these alter- natives using identical scale-dependent sampling protocols in multiple grasslands on two continents.

Location: Thirty-two grassland sites in North America and Australia.

Methods: We use multiscale observational data, collected identically in grain and extent at each site, to test the association of local and regional factors with the plot-level richness and abundance of native and exotic plants. Sites captured environmental and anthropogenic gradients including land-use intensity, human population density, light and soil resources, climate and elevation. Site selection occurred independently of exotic diversity, meaning that the numbers of exotic species varied randomly thereby reducing potential biases if only highly invaded sites were chosen.

Results: Regional factors associated directly or indirectly with human activity had the strongest associations with plot-level diversity. These regional drivers had divergent effects: urban-based economic activity was associated with high exotic:native diversity ratios; climate- and landscape-based indicators of lower human population density were associated with low exotic:native ratios. Negative correlations between plot-level native and exotic diversity, a potential signature of competitive interactions, were not prevalent; this result did not change along gradients of productivity or heterogeneity.

Main conclusion: We show that plot-level diversity of native and exotic plants are more consistently associated with regional-scale factors relating to urbanization and climate suitability than measures indicative of competition. These findings clarify the long-standing difficulty in resolving drivers of exotic diversity using single-factor mechanisms, suggesting that multiple interacting anthropogenic-based processes best explain the accumulation of exotic diversity in modern landscapes.