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We don't know what we're missing: Evidence of a vastly undersampled invasive plant pool


Brittany Laginhas

Matthew Fertakos

Bethany Bradley

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Secondary Title:
Ecological Applications
1051-0761, 1939-5582


Invasive plants are a prominent threat to ecosystems and economies worldwide. Knowing the identity of invasive plants is critical for preventing their introduction and spread. Yet several lines of evidence, including spatial and taxonomic biases in reporting and the ongoing emergence of new invasives, suggest that we are missing basic information about the identity of invasive plants. Using a database of invasive plants reported in the peer-reviewed literature between 1959-2020, we examined trends in the accumulation of new invasive plants over time and estimated the size of the current pool of invasive plants both continentally and globally. The number of new invasive plants continues to increase exponentially over time, showing no sign of saturation, even in the best studied regions. Moreover, a sample-size based rarefaction-extrapolation curve of reported taxa suggests that what is documented in the current literature (3,008 taxa) only captures 64% of the likely number of invasive plants globally (4,721 taxa +/- 132 standard error). These estimates varied continentally; less than half of invasive plant taxa have likely been identified in Oceania and Central & South Americas. Studies that included multiple invasive plants (e.g., floristic studies) were much more efficient at adding new taxa to our global understanding of what is invasive (identifying 4.2 times more new taxa than single-taxon studies). With more potential invaders arriving every day, this analysis highlights a critical gap in our knowledge of the current invasive plant pool. Expanding invasion science to better encompass understudied geographic areas and increasing the numbers of floristic surveys would greatly improve our ability to accurately and efficiently identify what taxa are invasive. Preventing invasive plant introductions is incumbent upon knowing the identity of invasive plants. Thus, large knowledge gaps remain in invasion ecology that hinder efforts to proactively prevent and manage invasive plants.