Alien plant invasions—incorporating emerging invaders in regional prioritization: A pragmatic approach for Southern Africa

03 July 2007

Plant invasions are a serious threat to natural and semi-natural ecosystems worldwide. Most management-orientated research on invasions focuses on invaders that are already widespread and often have major impacts. This paper deals with “emerging” invaders—those alien species with the potential to become important problems without timely intervention. A climate matching procedure was developed to define areas of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland that could be invaded by 28 plant species that had previously been classified as emerging invaders. Information on the location of populations of these species in the study area was combined with information on their distributions (as native or alien) in parts of Australia and the United States of America. These two countries had the best available distribution data for this study. They also share many invasive alien plant species with South Africa. Climatic data obtained for weather stations near points of known occurrence in these countries were used to define the climatically suitable areas for each species in the study area. Almost 80% of the remaining natural environment in southern Africa was found to be vulnerable to invasion by at least one of these species, 50% by six or more and 24% by 16 or more species. The most vulnerable areas are the highveld grasslands and the eastern escarpment. The emerging invaders with the greatest potential range included Acacia podalyriifolia and Cortaderia selloana. The globally important invaders Ulex europaeus and Lythrum salicaria had a more limited invasion potential but could still become major invaders. There was no relationship between the extent of the climatically suitable areas for the different species and an expert ranking of their invasion potential, emphasising the uncertainties inherent in making expert assessments based on very little information. The methods used in this analysis establish a protocol for future modelling exercises to assess the invasion potential of other emerging invaders.