13 Chapter 13: Invasive Species

Mason Tedeschi; Anastasia Chouvalova; and Lisa Limeri

Introduction to Invasive Species

Imagine sailing down a river in a small motorboat on a weekend afternoon; the water is smooth and you are enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze when suddenly you are hit in the head by a 20-pound silver carp. This is now a risk on many rivers and canal systems in Illinois and Missouri because of the presence of Asian carp.

This fish—actually a group of species including the silver, black, grass, and big head carp—has been farmed and eaten in China for over 1000 years. It is one of the most important aquaculture food resources worldwide. In the United States, however, Asian carp is considered a dangerous invasive species that disrupts community structure and composition to the point of threatening native species.

are nonnative organisms that, when introduced to an area out of their native range, threaten the ecosystem balance of that habitat. Many such species exist in the United States (Fig 13.1). Whether enjoying a forest hike, taking a summer boat trip, or simply walking down an urban street, you have likely encountered an invasive species.

Figure 13.1 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. (Photo credits: photo credits: 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)

Introductions of species, particularly plants into new areas, by whatever means and for whatever reasons have brought about major and permanent changes to the environment over large areas. Examples include the introduction of Caulerpa taxifolia into the Mediterranean, the introduction of oat species into the California grasslands, and the introduction of privet, kudzu, and purple loosestrife to North America. Rats, cats, and goats have radically altered biodiversity in many islands. Additionally, introductions have resulted in genetic changes to native fauna where interbreeding has taken place, as with buffalo with domestic cattle, and wolves with domestic dogs.

Reading Question #1

What is an invasive species?

A. Any non-native species introduced to a new area.
B. Any species that becomes dominant in a community.
C. Any species that negatively impacts a community.
D. A non-native species that negatively impacts a community.

Example: Asian carp

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

Voracious eaters and rapid reproducers, Asian carp may outcompete native species for food, potentially leading to their extinction. For example, black carp are voracious eaters of native mussels and snails, limiting this food source for native fish species. Silver carp eat plankton that native mussels and snails feed on, reducing this food source by a different alteration of the food web. In some areas of the Mississippi River, Asian carp species have become the most predominant, effectively outcompeting native fishes for habitat. In some parts of the Illinois River, Asian carp constitute 95% of the community’s biomass. Although edible, the fish is bony and not a desired food in the United States. Moreover, their presence threatens the native fish and fisheries of the Great Lakes, which are important to local economies and recreational anglers. Asian carp have even injured humans. The fish, frightened by the sound of approaching motorboats, thrust themselves into the air, often landing in the boat or directly hitting the boaters.

The Great Lakes and their prized salmon and lake trout fisheries are also being threatened by these invasive fish. Asian carp have already colonized rivers and canals that lead into Lake Michigan. One infested waterway of particular importance is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Channel, the major supply waterway linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. To prevent the Asian carp from leaving the canal, a series of electric barriers have been successfully 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, but no one knows whether the Asian carp will ultimately be considered a nuisance, like other invasive species such as the water hyacinth and zebra mussel, or whether it will be the destroyer of the largest freshwater fishery of the world.

The issues associated with Asian carp show how population and community ecology, fisheries management, and politics intersect on issues of vital importance to the human food supply and economy. Socio-political issues like this make extensive use of the sciences of population ecology (the study of members of a particular species occupying a particular area known as a habitat) and community ecology (the study of the interaction of all species within a habitat).

Exotic Species

Exotic species are species that have been intentionally or unintentionally introduced into an ecosystem in which they did not evolve. 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 a foot a day. It is now an invasive pest species and covers over 7 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.

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 that can make them especially successful in a new ecosystem. These exotic species often undergo dramatic population increases in their new habitat and reset the ecological conditions in the new environment, threatening the species that exist there. When exotic species are successful in their introductions and damage their new ecosystem, they are called . Invasive species can threaten other species through competition for resources, predation, or disease. For example, the Eurasian star thistle, also called spotted knapweed, has invaded and rendered useless some of the open prairies of the western states. However, it is a great nectar-bearing flower for the production of honey and supports numerous pollinating insects, including migrating monarch butterflies in the north-central states such as Michigan.

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 endemic 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.

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.

The crimes of fungal pathogens

In the 1990’s, researchers became alarmed by the dramatic global decline of amphibian populations. It now appears that the global decline in amphibian species is, in some part, caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which causes the disease chytridiomycosis (Figure 13.2). 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 reservoir for the disease.

Figure 13.2. 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. 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.

Career Connection: Microbiologist

The most effective action anyone can take to prevent the spread of contagious is to wash their hands. Why? Because microbes (organisms so tiny that they can only be seen with microscopes) are ubiquitous. They live on doorknobs, money, your hands, and many other surfaces. If someone sneezes into his hand and touches a doorknob, and afterwards you touch that same doorknob, the microbes from the sneezer’s mucus are now on your hands. If you touch your hands to your mouth, nose, or eyes, those microbes can enter your body and could make you sick.

However, not all microbes (also called microorganisms) cause disease; most are actually beneficial. You have microbes in your gut that make vitamin K. Other microorganisms are used to ferment beer and wine.

Microbiologists are scientists who study microbes. Microbiologists can pursue a number of careers. Not only do they work in the food industry, they are also employed in the veterinary and medical fields. They can work in the pharmaceutical sector, serving key roles in research and development by identifying new antibiotic sources that can treat bacterial infections.

Environmental microbiologists may look for new ways to use specially selected or genetically engineered microbes to remove pollutants from soil or groundwater, as well as hazardous elements from contaminated sites. We call using these microbes bioremediation technologies. Microbiologists can also work in the bioinformatics field, providing specialized knowledge and insight for designing, developing, and specificity of computer models of, for example, bacterial epidemics.

Reading Question #2

What are the possible outcomes of a species being introduced to a new continent it did not evolve on?

A. It could fail to establish and not impact the ecosystem
B. It could establish and alter the ecosystem dynamics
C. It could establish and outcompete native species and drive them to extinction
D. All of the above

Reading Question #3

How do exotic species get introduced to new regions?

A. On accident through human activity.
B. Intentionally by humans as pets.
C. Intentionally by humans as ornamental species.
D. All of the above.

Reading Question #4

How can invasive species impact their new ecosystems?

A. By causing disease
B. By outcompeting native species
C. By consuming native species
D. All of the above


Adapted from Clark, M.A., Douglas, M., and Choi, J. (2018). Biology 2e. OpenStax. Retrieved from https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction



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Introductory Biology 2 Copyright © 2023 by Mason Tedeschi; Anastasia Chouvalova; and Lisa Limeri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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