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Invasive species alter habitat to their benefit

When scientists study habitats that alien species have invaded, they usually find predictable patterns. The diversity of native species declines, and changes occur in natural processes such as nutrient cycling, wildfire frequency and the movement of water through the system.

But simply observing such changes doesn't prove that the invaders are responsible.

University of Michigan researchers Emily Farrer and Deborah Goldberg, however, came up with a way to tease out the cause of environmental changes in northern Michigan wetlands where invasive cattails have taken hold. The cattails, they found, alter the environment in ways that hinder native species but benefit the invaders. Farrer and Goldberg will present their results Aug. 9 at a meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Memphis, Tenn.

"When you have an invasion, you typically see three things happening at once: the invasion, the change in environment and the decrease in diversity," said Farrer, a graduate student in Goldberg's laboratory group. "But they're all happening concurrently, so you can't really tell which is causing the other." Other factors may enter in. For example, human activity, such as the use of fertilizers and road salt and the suppression of natural wildfires, also may result in environmental changes that affect species diversity.

"My question was, are humans causing the changes, or are the invaders?" Farrer said. "Finding the answer has practical implications: if you're trying to restore a natural habitat, you have to know the cause of the decline in native species. Do you target the invader or try to minimize human interference?"

Farrer began by surveying marshes in northern Michigan to find out what kinds of cattails were there. The state is home to three cattail species: the native broad-leaf cattail; the invasive narrow-leaf cattail, which was introduced on the east coast in the early 19th century and eventually found its way inland; an
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Source:University of Michigan


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