The ecological niche and reciprocal prediction of the disjunct distribution of an invasive species: the example of Ailanthus altissima
Knowledge of the ecological niches of invasive species in native and introduced ranges can inform management as well as ecological and evolutionary theory. Here, we identified and compared factors associated with the distribution of an invasive tree, Ailanthus altissima, in both its native Chinese and introduced US ranges and predicted potential US distribution. For both ranges separately, we selected suites of the most parsimonious logistic regression models of occurrence based on environmental variables and evaluated these against independent data. We then incorporated information from both ranges in a simple Bayesian model to predict the potential US distribution. Occurrence of A. altissima in both ranges exhibited a unimodal response to temperature variables. In China, occurrence had negative relationships with topographic wetness and forest cover and positive relationships with precipitation and agricultural and urban land use. In the US, A. altissima was associated with intermediate levels of forest cover and precipitation. The Bayesian model identified 58–80% of 10-arc minute grid cells in the conterminous US as containing suitable areas for A. altissima. The best model developed from Chinese data applied to the US matched most areas of observed occurrence but under-predicted occurrence in lower probability areas. This discrepancy is suggestive of a broadening of the ecological niche of A. altissima and may be due to such factors as less intense competition, increased potency of allelopathy, and novel genotypes formed from multiple introductions. The Bayesian model suggests that A. altissima has the potential to substantially expand its distribution in the US.