Environmental harshness drives spatial heterogeneity in biotic resistance
Ecological communities often exhibit greater resistance to biological invasions when these communities consist of species that are not closely related. The effective size of this resistance, however, varies geographically. Here we investigate the drivers of this heterogeneity in the context of known contributions of native trees to the resistance of forests in the eastern United States of America to plant invasions. Using 42,626 spatially referenced forest community observations, we quantified spatial heterogeneity in relationships between evolutionary relatedness amongst native trees and both invasive plant species richness and cover. We then modelled the variability amongst the 91 ecological sections of our study area in the slopes of these relationships in response to three factors known to affect invasion and evolutionary relationships – environmental harshness (as estimated via tree height), relative tree density and environmental variability. Invasive species richness and cover declined in plots having less evolutionarily related native trees. The degree to which they did, however, varied considerably amongst ecological sections. This variability was explained by an ecological section’s mean maximum tree height and, to a lesser degree, SD in maximum tree height (R2 GLMM = 0.47 to 0.63). In general, less evolutionarily related native tree communities better resisted overall plant invasions in less harsh forests and in forests where the degree of harshness was more homogenous. These findings can guide future investigations aimed at identifying the mechanisms by which evolutionary relatedness of native species affects exotic species invasions and the environmental conditions under which these effects are most pronounced.