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11.6.1: Overview of Invasive Species

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    Invasive species are non-native organisms that, when introduced to an area out of its native range, disrupt the community they invade. Non-native (exotic) refers to species occurring outside of their historic distribution. Invasive species have been intentionally or unintentionally introduced by humans into an ecosystem in which they did not evolve. Human transportation of people and goods, including the intentional transport of organisms for trade, has dramatically increased the introduction of species into new ecosystems. These new introductions are 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. Invasive species can cause ecological and economic damage. They threaten other species through competition for resources, predation, or disease.

    In the United States, invasive species like the purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) have drastically altered the ecosystems they invaded. Some well-known invasive animals include the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) and the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris; figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)). Whether enjoying a forest hike, taking a summer boat trip, or simply walking down an urban street, you have likely encountered an invasive species.

    Collage of purple loosestrife, tiny zebra mussels, the bushy buckthorn, garlic mustard, a bright green emerald ash borer, and a starling.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): In the United States, invasive species like (a) purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and the (b) zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) threaten certain aquatic ecosystems. Some forests are threatened by the spread of (c) common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), (d) garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and (e) the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis). The (f) European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) may compete with native bird species for nest holes. (credit a: modification of work by Liz West; credit b: modification of work by M. McCormick, NOAA; credit c: modification of work by E. Dronkert; credit d: modification of work by Dan Davison; credit e: modification of work by USDA; credit f: modification of work by Don DeBold)

    Asian Carp

    One of the many recent proliferations of an invasive species concerns the Asian carp in the United States. Asian carp were introduced to the United States in the 1970s by fisheries (commercial catfish ponds) and by sewage treatment facilities that used the fish’s excellent filter feeding abilities to clean their ponds of excess plankton. Some of the fish escaped, and by the 1980s they had colonized many waterways of the Mississippi River basin, including the Illinois and Missouri Rivers.

    Voracious feeders and rapid reproducers, Asian carp may outcompete native species for food and could lead to their extinction. One species, the grass carp, feeds on phytoplankton and aquatic plants. It competes with native species (those that historically occurred in the area and are adapted to the local ecosystem) for these resources and alters habitats for other fish by removing aquatic plants. In some parts of the Illinois River, Asian carp constitute 95 percent of the community’s biomass. Although edible, the fish is bony and not desired in the United States.

    The Great Lakes and their prized salmon and lake trout fisheries are being threatened by Asian carp. The carp are not yet present in the Great Lakes, and attempts are being made to prevent its access to the lakes through the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, which is the only connection between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins. To prevent the Asian carp from leaving the canal, a series of electric barriers have been used to discourage their migration; however, the threat is significant enough that several states and Canada have sued to have the Chicago channel permanently cut off from Lake Michigan. Local and national politicians have weighed in on how to solve the problem. In general, governments have been ineffective in preventing or slowing the introduction of invasive species.

    Effect on Endemic Species

    Lakes and islands are particularly vulnerable to extinction threats from introduced species. In Lake Victoria, the intentional introduction of the Nile perch was largely responsible for the extinction of about 200 species of cichlids (see Patterns of Biodiversity). The accidental introduction of the brown tree snake via aircraft (figure \(\PageIndex{b}\)) 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.

    A brown tree snake with visible scales and a forked tongue
    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): 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. (credit: NPS)

    Introduction by Ballast Water

    Many introductions of aquatic species, both marine and freshwater, have occurred when ships have dumped ballast water taken on at a port of origin into waters at a destination port. Water from the port of origin is pumped into tanks on a ship empty of cargo to increase stability. The water is drawn from the ocean or estuary of the port and typically contains living organisms such as plant parts, microorganisms, eggs, larvae, or aquatic animals. The water is then pumped out before the ship takes on cargo at the destination port, which may be on a different continent. The zebra mussel was introduced to the Great Lakes from Europe prior to 1988 in ballast water. The zebra mussels in the Great Lakes have created millions of dollars in clean-up costs to maintain water intakes and other facilities. The mussels have also altered the ecology of the lakes dramatically. They threaten native mollusk populations, but have also benefited some species, such as smallmouth bass. The mussels are filter feeders and have dramatically improved water clarity, which in turn has allowed aquatic plants to grow along shorelines, providing shelter for young fish where it did not exist before. The European green crab, Carcinus maenas, was introduced to San Francisco Bay in the late 1990s, likely in ship ballast water, and has spread north along the coast to Washington. The crabs have been found to dramatically reduce the abundance of native clams and crabs with resulting increases in the prey species of those native crabs.

    Invasive Species as Diseases

    Invading exotic species can also be disease organisms. It now appears that the global decline in amphibian species recognized in the 1990s is, in some part, caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), which causes the disease chytridiomycosis (figure \(\PageIndex{c}\)). There is evidence that the fungus is native to Africa and may have been spread throughout the world by transport of a commonly used laboratory and pet species: the African clawed frog, 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 B. dendrobatidis and can act as a disease reservoir by storing the infectious fungus.

    A dead, emaciated frog with red lesions on its pelvis
    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): 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. (credit: Brian Gratwicke)

    Early evidence suggests that another fungal pathogen, Geomyces destructans, introduced from Europe is responsible for white-nose syndrome, which infects cave-hibernating bats in eastern North America and has spread from a point of origin in western New York State (figure \(\PageIndex{d}\)). The disease has decimated bat populations and threatens extinction of species already listed as endangered: the Indiana bat, Myotis sodalis, and potentially the Virginia big-eared bat, Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus. How the fungus was introduced is unknown, but one logical presumption would be that recreational cavers unintentionally brought the fungus on clothes or equipment from Europe.

    A little brown bat hanging upside down has white, powdery growth on its nose.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{d}\): This little brown bat in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009, was found to have white-nose syndrome. (credit: modification of work by Marvin Moriarty, USFWS).

    Biological Control of Invasive Species

    One reason why invasive species proliferate dramatically outside of their native range is due to release from predators. This means that parasites, predators, or herbivores that usually regulate their populations are not present, allowing them to outcompete or overpredate native species, which are still regulated. Based on this principle, organisms that regulate the invasive species populations have been introduced to the newly colonized areas in some cases. The release of organisms (or viruses) to limit population size is called biological control. As described in the examples below, biological control of invasive species has had varying success, exacerbating the problem in some cases and solving it in others.

    Prickly-pear Cactus (Opuntia)

    Introduced into Australia, this cactus soon spread over millions of hectares of range land driving out forage plants. In 1924, the cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, was introduced (from Argentina) into Australia. The caterpillars of the moth are voracious feeders on prickly-pear cactus, and within a few years, the caterpillars had reclaimed the range land without harming a single native species. However, its introduction into the Caribbean in 1957 did not produce such happy results. By 1989, the cactus moth had reached Florida, and now threatens five species of native cacti there.

    Purple Loosestrife

    The leaf beetle (Galerucella calmariensis) has been introduced to suppress purple loosestrife, a noxious weed (figure \(\PageIndex{e}\)). A combination of four biological controls, including the leaf beetle were released in Minnesota since 1992. While it has not eradicated populations of this invasive species, biological control largely removed leaves from 20% of the purple loosestrive populations where it was released, which could reduce competition for native species. The biological controls established populations in most locations where they were released and even spread to new patches of purple loosestrife. 

    A brown beetle eats holes in a leaf
    Figure \(\PageIndex{e}\): Young larvae of the leaf-beetle feed in and on the developing buds of plants, often destroying them. This may stunt plant growth and delay or prevent flowering. Adults (shown) and older larvae feed on leaves and cause severe defoliation. Leaf-beetles can be used to as a biocontrol for invasive plants such as purple loosestrife.

    Klamath Weed

    In 1946 two species of Chrysolina beetles were introduced into California to control the Klamath weed (St. Johnswort) that was ruining millions of acres of range land in California and the Pacific Northwest. Before their release, the beetles were carefully tested to make certain that they would not turn to valuable plants once they had eaten all the Klamath weed they could find. The beetles succeeded beautifully, restoring about 99% of the endangered range land and earning them a commemorative plaque at the Agricultural Center Building in Eureka, California. 

    European Rabbit

    In 1859, the European rabbit was introduced into Australia for sport. With no important predator there, it multiplied explosively (figure \(\PageIndex{f}\)). The raising of sheep (another imported species) suffered badly as the rabbits competed with them for forage.

    A high density of rabbits surrounds a waterhole in Australia in 1938.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{f}\): These rabbits in Australia removed all forage plants, which ordinarily supply them with water as well as food. They thus had to drink from a pool. Image by National Archives of Australia (public domain).

    In 1950, the myxoma virus was brought from Brazil and released. The epidemic that followed killed off millions of rabbits (more than 99% of the population). Green grass returned, and sheep raising once again became profitable. Rabbit populations gradually increased, however, because the rabbits evolved to be more resistant to the virus, and the myxoma virus evolved to cause less damage. (Parasites, like viruses, benefit from multiplying inside the host and spreading to other individuals. If they kill their hosts too soon, they typically limit opportunities to multiply and spread.) More recently, the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus has been used as biological control.

    Strategies for Effective Biological Control

    To summarize the lessons learned from biological control successes and failures, only candidates that have a very narrow target preference (eat only a sharply-limited range of hosts) should be chosen. Each candidate should be carefully tested to be sure that once it has cleaned up the intended target, it does not turn to desirable species. Biological controls must not be used against native species. Finally, introduction of non-native species into the environment should be avoided because they could themselves be invasive.


    Modified by Melissa Ha from the following sources:

    This page titled 11.6.1: Overview of Invasive Species is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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