Are all alien encounters bad?

Aug 30, 2011 By Carrie Arnold
Zebra mussels were first detected in the Great Lakes in 1988. It is thought that they were introduced into the Great lakes from ballast water of ocean-going ships. Credit: USFWS

The pages of ecological history are filled with woeful tales of destruction from non-native species -- organisms that originated elsewhere.

Kudzu, a fast-growing vine imported from Japan, now chokes out many across the southern United States, native to the have reduced the food supplies of native fishes in the Great Lakes, and rats imported to New Zealand have decimated the native .

Examples of the damages caused by these so-called "" are seemingly as endless as the amount of battles waged against them.

But are all non-native species bad?

Biologist Mark Davis says no. Davis, a professor from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, believes it's time to raise the white flag against non-native species. Most non-native species, he said, are harmless -- or even helpful.

In a letter published in the journal Nature this past June, Davis and 18 other ecologists argued that these destructive invasive species -- or those non-native species that cause ecological or -- are only a tiny subset of non-native species, and that this tiny fraction has basically given all new arrivals a bad name.

Take Devil's claw -- a plant that produces hooked pods for increased -- which was imported to the Australian outback during the 19th century as a horticultural oddity. Despite research failing to show that the species has any significant effects on local biodiversity or , the government has spent the last 20 years trying to remove this plant from the Australian landscape. Efforts that according to Davis are an unwise use of scarce resources that automatically target non-native species simply because they're newly arrived immigrants.

"What's native and non-native is quite arbitrary," Davis said. "It depends on what time in the past a species has to have been there to be considered native, and everything after that is non-native. Unless a species evolved in a particular site, all species are ultimately introduced."

Many of the species we see as part of the quintessential American landscape -- honeybees, earthworms, and even the amber waves of grain celebrated in song -- are actually imports from Europe. Davis said that most species arrive from somewhere else, so someone's definition of "native" depends on how far back they turn the clock. Turn it back far enough, and essentially every living organism could fit the definition.

The origin of a species may not tell you everything about it, said University of Tennessee - Knoxville Dan Simberloff, but it tells you a lot. The very next month, Simberloff and 141 fellow ecologists published a formal objection, also published in Nature, to the Davis group original piece.

If a non-native species lacks natural predators in their new environment and is able to find suitable food and habitat, their numbers can skyrocket -- the hallmark of an invasive species. This sudden takeover can leave with no food and no place to live. Such population growth and expansion of non-native species to invasive status can take years, sometimes generations until the conditions are just right or if the initial colonizations fail. But once a non-native species turns invasive, there's no going back. Invasive species are remarkably hard to expel from their new locale once they establish themselves.

Also, Simberloff said that plenty of native species are pesky and harmful, but they rarely cause the large-scale damage done by non-native species. In that sense, it's both fair and prudent to act quickly and decisively against newly arrived species -- but this move is less about mistrust of non-native species and more about trying to prevent damage from a potential invasive species.

According to Simberloff, of the 7,000 estimated non-native species present in North America, approximately 1,000 are considered invasive. Clearly, invasive species are in the minority, but their small numbers don't keep them from causing hundreds of billions of dollars in economic and ecological harm. If researchers waited to evaluate the harm caused by a non-native species, as Davis proposed, conservation managers would lose valuable time in which to act.

Another reason is that the harm done by an invasive species isn't always immediate. Sometimes a non-native species can arrive and live quietly for years before erupting into a full-fledged invasive species. The Brazilian pepper shrub was imported to Florida from South America in the mid-19th century as an ornamental plant, and posed no problems for nearly a century. But in the 1930s it began to spread unchecked, and now infests over 700,000 acres across Florida, the plant's dense canopy inhibiting the growth of native species.

"We're not good at figuring out which species might be damaging," Simberloff said.

But the management of invasive species usually happens on a very tight budget, said Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy. Every day, according to Kareiva, policymakers and ecologists try to figure out which species might be harmful, which invasive species are doing the most damage, and which of these might respond best to eradication efforts.

"Most ecologists think in terms of invasive or not invasive," Kareiva said. "If a species is non-native and not invasive, then we wouldn't pay much attention to it."

Researchers have spent years trying to answer the question of what makes a non-native species become invasive, but Kareiva would like to see them answer another question.

"When invasive species first show up, can we predict which ones are going to become major modifiers of ecosystems or harm other species?" asked Kareiva.

The answer to this question may help ecologists and conservation managers take more steps to maintain native biodiversity and ecosystem functioning -- the ultimate goal of all sides in this debate.

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LariAnn
1 / 5 (4) Aug 30, 2011
Mark Davis raises a voice of reason, and the invasion biology pseudoscientists have a cow over it! Kudzu does the same in native habitat as it does in "non-native" habitat - the facts are that species move around, and have moved around, for millions of years. Trying to keep an ecosystem static and unchanging is what is going to kill of ecosystems, not the introduction of more diversity. I challenge these pseudoscientists to produce genuine research showing that pristine, unaltered ecosystems have been damaged by non-native species. It will be hard for them to do so, as nearly all the areas where "invasion" is alleged to have done damage are overgrown old cropland, dredged riverbanks or otherwise severely disturbed habitats. In Florida, you can observe the "florida holly" growing along fencelines and in cleared land, not in totally undisturbed pristine habitats. The way the article is written, you'd think there are 700,000 acres of nothing but florida holly in Florida. Not so!
Cave_Man
2 / 5 (4) Aug 30, 2011
The only problem is that there may be one plant out there that is so much more evolutionarily hardy than a native species that has just emerged and is struggling to root itself in an area, that when the hardy plant in introduced before the other plant has time to establish in an area it will make the native plant go extinct.

Now who cares right? Well that extinct plant may have eventually become a new food crop or have some medicinal value so when humans speed up dispersal of plants we see a smaller, less diverse result than nature initially provided us.

Respect your roots
TomD
not rated yet Aug 30, 2011
Let me guess, any scientist you disagree with is one of those, amiright? Here is something from the bio for one of these so-called 'pseudoscientists':

Peter Kareiva is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, where he is responsible for developing and helping to implement science-based conservation throughout the organization and for forging new linkages with partners.
Peter publishes prolifically, having authored over 100 scientific articles in such diverse fields as mathematical biology, fisheries science, insect ecology, risk analysis, genetically engineered organisms, agricultural ecology, population viability analysis, behavioral ecology, landscape ecology and global climate change. In 2007, Peter was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a member of the Ecological Society of America and the Society for Conservation Biology.
TomD
not rated yet Aug 30, 2011
Peter received a masters of science degree in environmental biology from the University of California, Irvine, and his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

FYI - over $100 million a year is spent in the U.S. combating invasive plants in wetlands alone. Rich, diverse plant communities can become barren, inhospitable expanses of invasive plants with little value to wildlife. Invasive plants may even deplete groundwater resources. Plants introduced to North America from other parts of the world have come to dominate millions of acres of forest, desert, prairie, and wetlands. (source: USDA)
Yellowdart
1 / 5 (4) Aug 30, 2011
Rich, diverse plant communities can become barren, inhospitable expanses of invasive plants with little value to wildlife. Invasive plants may even deplete groundwater resources.


What'd they ever do without humans around!

Peter Kareiva


Peter as quoted in the article seems to be cautioning against the accuracy of which species are truly harmful. This is the same thing Mark Davis says, which LariAnn agreed with.

So your comment here:
Let me guess, any scientist you disagree with is one of those, amiright?


Is pointless.

Yellowdart
1 / 5 (4) Aug 30, 2011
Now who cares right? Well that extinct plant may have eventually become a new food crop or have some medicinal value so when humans speed up dispersal of plants we see a smaller, less diverse result than nature initially provided us.


Sure, but that's no longer natural selection. It's human selection. So long as we are content playing judge, that's fine. I think these scientist frame the question well though, as to which ones are truly detrimental that we must help protect the ecosystem from. I think that is good stewardship.
Sinister1811
1 / 5 (4) Aug 31, 2011
It's possible that introduced species may become an ecological replacement for extinct species in a particular environment. This has happened in the past as well.
hush1
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2011
All religions consider the species TheGhostofOtto1928 truly harmful and invasive.

No expense is too great for all religions to combat this.
TomD
not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
What'd they ever do without humans around!

Quite likely the invasives would not be there, but I admit I am not quite sure what you meant there.

Peter as quoted in the article seems to be cautioning against the accuracy of which species are truly harmful. This is the same thing Mark Davis says, which LariAnn agreed with.

So your comment here:

Let me guess, any scientist you disagree with is one of those, amiright?

Is pointless.


Read again what the OP wrote, she seemed to group all names after Mark Davis as being 'pseudoscientists', my point was that Peter is hardly a 'pseudoscientist'.

alanborky
not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
They need to distinguish between 'driver' species, and passengers.

Drivers, by definition, start steering the ecosystem away from its current status quo, whereas passengers merely live off the ecosystem without altering it.
thewhitebear
not rated yet Sep 01, 2011
all energy systems are dynamic, but generally greater diversity correlates with greater resiliency, i.e. the ability of a system to absorb change without undergoing a phase-shift. A mono-crop is brittle and can easily snap under the pressure of a single disease or pest. Many invasives have the tendency to energetically simplify an ecosystem, making it more susceptible to collapse. Given that we rely on a robust and complex web of energetic relationships for our air, water, and food means we should carefully steward the resiliency of those ecological systems to insure redundancy and sustainability in our global life support systems.
jsa09
not rated yet Sep 04, 2011
@lariann
I challenge these pseudoscientists to produce genuine research showing that pristine, unaltered ecosystems have been damaged by non-native species.


All I can say is how many times does the same thing need to be proved?

Cane toads in Australia - look it up on google to see how much damage has been caused.
Rabbits - Australia again
Prickly pear - Australia again
Possums - New Zealand
Rats - New Zealand
Lantana - Australia again

European Carp - Most other countries
Zebra Muscles
Camphor Laural
Cats and dogs
Parramatta Grass
Fireweed
Water Hiasynth (sp?)
The list is not short and the damage caused to farmland or ecosystems is immense.