Alien Species Invasion
Alien species have been arriving everywhere for centuries
Urgent Call Made to the European Union to Stop a Multi-billion Dollar Invasion
Invasive alien species are nothing new in contradistinction to what is being claimed in the media. Nor is it solely caused by international trade. Part of it must be placed as the result of global warming with the migration of “alien species” into new environments as climate patterns change around the world. Sometimes the invasion can take decades to complete the invasion at the expense of the local inhabitants. Other times, the invasion can radically alter an environment in a short a time as a single season at the expense of the virtual extinction of all other species.
Alien species invasion had its first big leap when Europeans settled across the world and brought home unique plants and animals to Europe, or from Europe to other parts of the world like North America. When settlers arrived in North, Central and South America they brought with them domestic and not so domestic species from Europe that completely changed the face of the continent. Before they arrived, there were no bees, no worms, no pigs, nor horses and the types of cattle that were unfamiliar to the First Nations. In addition, the introduction of some species like the Asian chestnut brought in a fungus that virtually wiped out the native species that the natives depended on for food. The new species of chestnut took a long time to get established and the domestic ones were almost gone. They cling to life but when they begin to get established, the fungus kills them again. In addition, domestic pigs, unknown to the natives often went feral and ate the acorns that natives also depended on as a staple in many cases.
Bees that disappeared in the Americas in the great natural disaster of 12,600 years ago were reintroduced with long term and huge consequences. Before the bee, native fruits were either pollinated by air, birds or ants. These were items like the pau-pau, the persimmon and other fruits native to the “new world”. The Europeans introduced those that needed bees to pollinate them. Along with this, cattle were introduced and these displaced deer, elk and in particular, the bison which were destroyed to the point of extinction in a two pronged program to open up the central grasslands and to remove the First Nations inhabitants. Then there was the deliberate removal of wolves, coyotes and other predators in order to save the cattle. This had a negative impact on a wide variety of plant and animal species. Plants from other parts of the world were introduced, whether for crops or for decor. Some got loose and these wiped out native species by crowding them out or squeezing them out. Many had no natural enemies in the new world and had to be rigorously controlled by people, which sometimes did not happen. That was then and now with international travel and global climate change, alien species has escalated as if it were on steroids.
Species of all sizes are changing local and the ones on the edge like the polar bear and penguin are running out of environment. Also, as warm climates spread in both directions from the equator, they also spread up, so that the range of species like the quetzal bird shrink. In BC, the arrival of the California sea gull has superimposed itself in the ecological niche of the local sea gull varieties. For the moment they are co0existingm but we wonder how long as trends continue in the warming direction. For years, in the same region, the West Nile Virus and an unfamiliar fungus has been causing health problems. There is also concern for the arrival of Dengue fever, spread by mosquitoes as is the West Nile Virus.
The often illegal importation of exotic species is another vector. Often, when people get tired of their exotic pets, they are released into the wild. These can have a devastating effect such as the introduction of rabbits in Australia. And this is not limited to animals as people seek out exotic plants and these also “escape” from gardens into the ecosystem. Such a case is the infamous Japanese vine called kudzu, that literally took over Georgia and proved very difficult to control. In a single year, the zebra mussel took over the ecosystem of an entire river, virtually wiping out all other species that locals liked like craw-fish and fresh water fish. The zebra mussels were so pervasive that they were clogging up water intakes and interfering with power plants. Now we are hearing of problems in Europe from imported species. The Ruddy Duck, a north American transplant, is just one of more than 1,300 alien species living in Europe which are threatening biodiversity. Leading experts on invasive species are demanding Europe-wide legislation be put in place by next year to tackle the threat to native wildlife. The researchers want urgent action from the EU to protect Europe's indigenous species from these "alien invaders".
Invasive, non-native animals, plants and microorganisms cause tens of billions of dollars in damage in Europe each year. This compares to the historical damage done in the Americas and Australia by similar invasions. Scientists meeting at the Neobiota conference in Copenhagen are demanding Europe-wide legislation to be in place by next year to ensure the threat doesn't worsen.
An European inventory in 2008 found more than 10,000 alien species in Europe, with 1,300 having some kind of impact. This impact was exerted either on the environment, economy or, on human health. Water hyacinth, native to India and Asia Minor, grows vigorously and is very expensive to remove from water courses. It tends to grow back vigorously and rapidly, requiring repeated removal. There are at least some tentative solutions for this that can end up being beneficial. Water hyacinth turns out to be a great natural water purifier and can be used to treat sewage to the point of rendering pure water at the end of a stream. The plants themselves can be converted to paper and/or animal feed. Even so, these plants need rigorous control. They can destroy native wetlands that many other species like migrating birds require. Numbers of invasions are on the rise with the escalating trade around the world. Research published this year in the journal Science has found that alien species in Europe has increased by 76% in the last 30 years alone.
Piero Genovesi is chair of the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG), a global network of experts on invasive species. He told BBC News that the figure of 12 billion Euros represents a significant underestimate of the impact of alien species as this is limited to Europe. "For many species we have no idea what damage they cause or their economic impact. This is just a fraction of the actual cost," he told BBC News. He also added that this estimate does not include any assessment of the economic value of lost biodiversity caused by non-native species. The scientists gathered at the conference are calling for urgent action by the European Union to enact similar laws like those that already exist in countries like New Zealand and Australia. "We're asking the EU to rapidly develop and approve a policy on invasive species, fulfilling the formal commitment agreed by the council of European ministers in June 2009," Mr Genovesi told BBC News. "This is urgent, we would like this to be in place by next year."
In America over 2009, there was a similar urgent crisis that has already destroyed an entire ecosystem in a single year. Some 1,017 lakes in the Great Lakes region of the Unites States and Canada are under threat. Some rivers and lakes have already been destroyed by the zebra mussel invasion in a single year. Earlier in, the later part of the 20th century, it was the lamprey eel that decimated the Great Lakes fish ecosystem.
"Legislation on aquaculture, for example, would reduce the risks of accidental escapes from fish farms into the environment, he told BBC News. This is an issue that has come up before in regions like Norway and British Columbia where fish farming is strongly impacting wild species, especially with the introduction of sea lice that are having a huge negative impact on wild species and people who make a living on fishing.
Human health has also been impacted with the arrival of West Nile Virus and some early cases of dengue fever. The “imported” Asian tiger mosquito carries the Chikungunya virus which causes an illness similar to Dengue fever in humans. The Asian Tiger mosquito, native to areas of South East Asia has, in the last couple of decades, invaded many countries throughout the world because of increasing international travel and transport of goods. It is the vector for Chikungunya fever in humans, which causes severe illness affecting the joints and can last for years.
With internationalism becoming the increasing norm, alien species, as in past, are going to end up in new environments. But this is only part of the problem. There are species as mentioned that are losing their environments and this can only lead to extinction. There is talk of relocating polar bears to Antarctica, but there will likely be a huge protest. As it is, Antarctica, the continent of perpetual ice is now seeing plant life grow where none ever grew before. These likely got washed in on the tide with now ice free coasts. Along with the plants came animals not native to Antarctica, arriving from South America.
So far, the global warming front to correct our actions is in full reverse. The problem is getting worse and not better. We can expect more alien invaders, primarily in the form of disease and simple organisms that will alter whole food webs and bring with them a host of alien invader while displacing domestic ones toward the poles and tops of mountains. It is going to take a massive world wide change to break from the use of coal and oil just to stop the current trend. People in the far north and south are going to experience diseases familiar to equatorial regions like malaria, dengue fever and the like. We do not have a familiarity with managing malaria and the new strains are drug resistant. Untreated, malaria is usually fatal. We will also see the arrival of continental domestic species like scorpions moving north and south from the equator, and again, there is little familiarity with these creatures.
International trade will not stop, even in a sour economy. For this, more rigorous screening for potentially invading alien species, will have to be employed as there is little other recourse. In a cost cutting mindset, it seems like a stretch in order to effect this kind of security, but we will have to intervene as no one else is going to do it. The lesson of the 19th century in North America should stand out more than it does, but this is forgotten history except in the memories of the First Nations who can recount it in great detail. If anyone can tell us about the effect of an alien invasion it is these people, especially the elders who still have some link to the past. We must ask, is our future laid out as their past? If the concern of Stephen Hawking about aliens form space, based partly on these earth bound experiences is the case, then earth would see an unprecedented ecological change. Consciously or unconsciously, the answer is probably in the positive.
A space born alien invasion, whether advanced civilized creatures in gleaming interstellar space ships, or microbes by way of panspermia could be the coup for many earth bound species. It is thought that earth was seeded for life from space and that life itself pre-exists the earth. If this is the case, there are more aliens floating in interstellar space waiting to land on a suitable environment to awaken from billions of years of slumber.