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Biology LibreTexts

47.3C: Exotic Species

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  • Exotic species introduced into foreign ecosystems can threaten native species through competition for resources, predation, and disease.


    Describe the impact of exotic and invasive species on native species


    Key Points

    • Exotic species introduced to new environments often reset the ecological conditions in that new habitat, threatening the species that exist there; this is the reason that they are also termed invasive species.
    • Invasive species that are closely related to rare native species have the potential to hybridize with the native species; harmful effects of hybridization have led to a decline and even extinction of native species.
    • Biologists studying frogs and toads may be inadvertently responsible for the worldwide spread of a fungus deadly to amphibians.

    Key Terms

    • invasive species: any species that has been introduced to an environment where it is not native and has since become a nuisance through rapid spread and increase in numbers, often to the detriment of native species

    Exotic Species

    Exotic species are those that have been intentionally or unintentionally introduced by humans into an ecosystem in which they did not evolve. Such introductions probably occur frequently as natural phenomena. For example, Kudzu (Pueraria lobata), which is native to Japan, was introduced in the United States in 1876. It was later planted for soil conservation. Problematically, it grows too well in the southeastern United States: up to one foot each day. It is now a pest species, covering over seven million acres in the southeastern United States. If an introduced species is able to survive in its new habitat, that introduction is now reflected in the observed range of the species. Human transportation of people and goods, including the intentional transport of organisms for trade, has dramatically increased the introduction of species into new ecosystems, sometimes at distances that are well beyond the capacity of the species to ever travel itself and outside the range of the species’ natural predators.


    Exotic threats: The brown tree snake, Boiga irregularis, is an exotic species that has caused numerous extinctions on the island of Guam since its accidental introduction in 1950.

    Most exotic species introductions probably fail because of the low number of individuals introduced or poor adaptation to the ecosystem they enter. Some species, however, possess preadaptations that can make them especially successful in a new ecosystem. These exotic species often undergo dramatic population increases in their new habitat, resetting the ecological conditions in the new environment, while threatening the species that exist there. For this reason, exotic species, also called invasive species, can threaten other species through competition for resources, predation, or disease.

    Exotic Species Threaten Native Species

    Invasive species can change the functions of ecosystems. For example, invasive plants can alter the fire regimen, nutrient cycling, and hydrology in native ecosystems. Invasive species that are closely related to rare native species have the potential to hybridize with the native species. Harmful effects of hybridization have led to a decline and even extinction of native species. For example, hybridization with introduced cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, threatens the existence of California cordgrass in San Francisco Bay. Invasive species cause competition for native species. Four hundred of the 958 endangered species under the Endangered Species Act are at risk due to this competition.


    Global decline in amphibian species: This Limosa Harlequin Frog (Atelopus limosus), an endangered species from Panama, died from a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis. The red lesions are symptomatic of the disease.

    Lakes and islands are particularly vulnerable to extinction threats from introduced species. In Lake Victoria, as mentioned earlier, the intentional introduction of the Nile perch was largely responsible for the extinction of about 200 species of cichlids. The accidental introduction of the brown tree snake via aircraft from the Solomon Islands to Guam in 1950 has led to the extinction of three species of birds and three to five species of reptiles endemic to the island. Several other species are still threatened. The brown tree snake is adept at exploiting human transportation as a means to migrate; one was even found on an aircraft arriving in Corpus Christi, Texas. Constant vigilance on the part of airport, military, and commercial aircraft personnel is required to prevent the snake from moving from Guam to other islands in the Pacific, especially Hawaii. Islands do not make up a large area of land on the globe, but they do contain a disproportionate number of endemic species because of their isolation from mainland ancestors.

    It now appears that the global decline in amphibian species recognized in the 1990s is, in some part, caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which causes the disease chytridiomycosis. There is evidence that the fungus, native to Africa, may have been spread throughout the world by transport of a commonly-used laboratory and pet species: the African clawed toad (Xenopus laevis). It may well be that biologists themselves are responsible for spreading this disease worldwide. The North American bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana, which has also been widely introduced as a food animal, but which easily escapes captivity, survives most infections of Batrachochytriumdendrobatidis and can act as a reservoir for the disease.