Disturbance-dependent invasion of the woody weed, Calotropis procera, in Australian rangelands

Enock Ondeyo Menge, Sean Bellairs, Michael Lawes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Plant invasions are threats to biodiversity and ecosystem processes that have far reaching ecological and economic impacts. Understanding the mechanisms of invasion essentially helps in developing effective management strategies. Rubber bush (Calotropis procera) is an introduced milkweed that invades Australian beef production rangelands. Its establishment is often associated with disturbances caused by pastoral management practices. We examined whether or not rubber bush (1) outcompetes native grasses, (2) can invade intact rangeland, and (3) if disturbance facilitates rubber bush establishment and spread in grassy rangelands. We measured the competitive response of different densities of Mitchell grass (Astrebla pectinata) individuals and the competitive effects of associate rubber bush seedlings in an additive common garden experiment. Replicated field exclosure experiments, under grass-dominated and tropical savanna woodland conditions examined the effect of increasing levels of disturbance on rubber bush seedling emergence. The dominant native Mitchell grass was a stronger competitor than rubber bush when grown together under greenhouse conditions, whereby root and shoot biomass yields were more restricted in rubber bush compared with Mitchell grass. This finding was corroborated in the field exclosure experiments at both sites, where seedling emergence increased 5-fold in seeded and highly disturbed plots where superficial soils were turned over by treatments simulating heavy grazing and trampling by cattle or machinery. Emergence of rubber bush seedlings in seeded plots that were undisturbed, clipped and grazed was minimal and rubber bush seedlings did not survive the seedling stage in these plots. These results demonstrate that disturbance to the superficial soil stratum affects the ability of rubber bush seeds to successfully establish in a microsite, and high levels of soil disturbance substantially increase establishment. Thus, rubber bush is a poor competitor of Mitchell grass and does not invade intact grassland. Consequently, rubber bush invasion is disturbance-dependent in the vast Australian rangelands. The spread of this weed may be arrested by management practices that minimise disturbances to grass cover.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-211
Number of pages11
JournalRangeland Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2017


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