Invasive species: How they spread, why they’re a danger and how to prevent them

27th October, 2021.      //   General Interest  // 

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Invasive species”—they may not sound very threatening, but these invaders, large and small, have devastating effects on wildlife.

Invasive species are among the leading threats to native wildlife. Approximately 42 percent of threatened or endangered species are at risk due to invasive species. Human health and economies are also at risk from invasive species. The impacts of invasive species on our natural ecosystems and economy cost billions of dollars each year. Many of our commercial, agricultural, and recreational activities depend on healthy native ecosystems.

What Makes a Species “Invasive”?

An invasive species can be any kind of living organism—an amphibian (like the cane toad), plant, insect, fish, fungus, bacteria, or even an organism’s seeds or eggs—that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm. They can harm the environment, the economy, or even human health. Species that grow and reproduce quickly, and spread aggressively, with potential to cause harm, are given the label “invasive.

An invasive species does not have to come from another country. For example, lake trout are native to the Great Lakes, but are considered to be an invasive species in Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming because they compete with native cutthroat trout for habitat.

How Invasive Species Spread?

Zebra Mussels on propeller, ShutterstockInvasive species are primarily spread by human activities, often unintentionally. People, and the goods we use, travel around the world very quickly, and they often carry uninvited species with them. Ships can carry aquatic organisms in their ballast water, while smaller boats may carry them on their propellers. Insects can get into wood, shipping palettes, and crates that are shipped around the world. Some ornamental plants can escape into the wild and become invasive. And some invasive species are intentionally or accidentally released pets. For example, Burmese pythons are becoming a big problem in the Everglades.

In addition, higher average temperatures and changes in rain and snow patterns caused by climate change will enable some invasive plant species—such as garlic mustard, kudzu, and purple loosestrife—to move into new areas. Insect pest infestations will be more severe as pests such as mountain pine beetle are able to take advantage of drought-weakened plants.

Invasive species cause harm to wildlife in many ways. When a new and aggressive species is introduced into an ecosystem, it may not have any natural predators or controls. It can breed and spread quickly, taking over an area. Native wildlife may not have evolved defenses against the invader, or they may not be able to compete with a species that has no predators.

The direct threats of invasive species include preying on native species, outcompeting native species for food or other resources, causing or carrying disease, and preventing native species from reproducing or killing a native species’ young.

There are indirect threats of invasive species as well. Invasive species can change the food web in an ecosystem by destroying or replacing native food sources. The invasive species may provide little to no food value for wildlife. Invasive species can also alter the abundance or diversity of species that are important habitat for native wildlife. Aggressive plant species like kudzu can quickly replace a diverse ecosystem with a monoculture of just kudzu. Additionally, some invasive species are capable of changing the conditions in an ecosystem, such as changing soil chemistry or the intensity of wildfires.

One way to curb the pread of invasive species is to plant native plants and remove any invasive plants in your garden. There are many good native plant alternatives to common exotic ornamental plants. In addition, learn to identify invasive species in your area, and report any sightings to your county extension agent or local land manager.

Regularly clean your boots, gear, boat, tires, and any other equipment you use outdoors to remove insects and plant parts that may spread invasive species to new places. When camping, buy firewood near your campsite (within 30 miles) instead of bringing your own from home, and leave any extra for the next campers. Invertebrates and plants can easily hitch a ride on firewood you haul to or from a campsite—you could inadvertently introduce an invasive to a new area.

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