5 Terrible Lessons Learned from Invasive Species

From scientists’ boots and in the bottoms of boats, animals from one part of the world have ended up in places far from their own homes due to human activity. In more than a few cases, these “invasive species” have (through no fault of their own) wreaked havoc on endemic wildlife and fauna. In the Galapagos Islands, pigs and goats’ “relentless grazing” has had dire consequences; the rodents have “brought several species — including the rare Pinzón giant tortoise (Chelonoidisduncanensis) — to the brink of extinction” by eating the eggs and chicks of birds, including the Galapagos petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia).

Via Project Isabela, some $10.5 million has been used to remove all and 140,000 goats from a number of islands. Project Pinzón is another effort that involves dropping a rain of blue pellets — rat poisoning — from helicopters to rid three islands of rats. The logistics of the plan are complex (conservationists had to make sure that no endangered animals — tortoises, finches — might eat the poison and perish); if it is successful, it will make Ecuador something like a “world leader in the eradication of invasive species,” as Nature comments.

Project Pinzón began in November of 2012; conservationists will be monitoring the islands for two more years before declaring it successful, or not. Constant vigilance is necessary. Nature notes that, in 2009, “some malcontent set six goats down on Santiago, which by then had been goat-free for around three years”; $32,393 — more than $5,000 per animal — was needed to remove them.

There are certainly other, non-lethal methods to remove invasive species. New Zealand has sought to reduce its possum population by building fences. It pays to take preventive measures such as supervising ballast water discharge (most of the 185 invasive species in the Great Lakes were introduced from such). We can encourage the use of “compassionate conservativion” to manage invasive species while minimizing any distress and pain for them and keep in mind that, in some cases (invasive boars in Brazil), non-native animals can be a benefit to the ecosystem they find themselves in.

Here are five other examples of invasive species who have had a detrimental effect on the places to which humans have introduced them.

1. The African Clawed Frog Spreads a Lethal Disease to Other Frogs

Until the early 1970s, African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) were used in pregnancy tests: the female frogs ovulate when exposed to a pregnant woman’s urine. Other pregnancy tests have since been developed and many hospitals released the Xenopus frogs into the wild, with dire results.

A lethal fungus disease, chytridiomycosis, appeared in the 1960s and wiped out hundreds of frog species. A new PLoS One study has found that, while Xenopus frogs are carriers of the fungus that causes the disease, they do not themselves catch it, so they have ample opportunity to spread the fungus to other frogs. Other species of frogs have perished from the fungal disease, which results in their skin becoming forty times as thick.

African clawed frogs are still widely used for research purposes. Between 1998 and 2004, more than 71,500 were exported from Africa as lab animals. The World Organization for Animal Health in Paris says all frogs should be tested for the fungus before being exported and infected animals treated or quarantined to help prevent spread — but compliance (certainly in the U.S.) is uneven.


2. Asian Ladybugs are Wiping Out Ladybugs Native to Europe

The harlequin or Asian ladybug is native to Central Asia. It has been imported to Europe and North America to control aphids and is now threatening the existence of native species, including the seven-spot ladybugs (Coccinella septempunctata) by overcompeting for food or eating other ladybugs.

Entomologists have found a specific reason for the harlequin’s survival: its blood or haemolymph contains a microsporidian parasite. The harlequin’s eggs and larvae contain this parasite in a “dormant and harmless state” but it can be fatal for other ladybugs. As ladybugs often eat other ladybugs’ eggs and larvae, the ones who consume those of the harlequin are infected with the parasite.

Other scientists point out that the harlequin’s success may be due to its being more resistant to a fungal disease that attacks ladybugs native to Europe.

3. Crabs Are Moving to Warmer Antarctic Waters

Using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) sent 1,400 meters down, scientists have found that king crabs are entering Antarctic seas as a result of warmer water in the continental shelf. Crabs have been absent from Antarctic seas for 30 million years because of colder water temperatures, but these are now rising due to climate change. Scientists estimate that 1.5 million crabs are already in Antarctic waters, where they could eliminate native species in droves.

After the Antarctic continent separated from South America 40 million years ago, the circumpolar ocean current arose and resulted in Antarctica becoming “isolated .. from warmer air and water masses farther north” and being “plunged … into perpetual winter.” Natural selection has led to a unique ecosystem in Antarctica but also one in which species have lost their “natural armor,” says James McClintock, a marine biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

As McClintock also notes, “you can pick up an Antarctic clam and crush it in your hand.” The creatures that have evolved in Antarctica — soft-bodied echinoderms and invertebrates such as starfish, brittlestars, sea lilies and sea cucumbers — include no predators with jaws able to crush the hard shells of, for instance, king crabs.


4. Burmese Pythons are Eating Endangered Species in the Everglades

As of early 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the sale of the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda and the northern and southern African pythons. All of these snakes have become a major problem in Florida and are considered invasive as these have established breeding grounds in the Everglades. Pythons have killed and eaten highly endangered Key Largo wood rats and also preyed on endangered wood storks.

Some breeders and pet owners have criticized the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ban. But federal and state agencies note they have already spent millions of dollars to deal with the threats the python poses and are concerned about having to spend more, should the snakes establish themselves in other regions.


5. Tawny Crazy Ants in Huge Numbers Are Pushing Out Fire Ants in Texas

Tawny crazy ants that get into people’s houses, nest in crawl spaces and walls and damage electrical equipment are displacing fire ants in Texas and some parts of Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. The crazy ants are native to northern Argentina and southern Brazil and have no natural enemies in the U.S. to keep their populations under control.

Accordingly, the crazy ants’ numbers can be 100 times as much as of those of the other types of ants combined. While crazy ants lack the painful bite of fire ants, they have so far been resistant to the types of poison used on fire ants. Due to their greater numbers, crazy ants (who are omnivorous) can monopolize food supplies, starve other species and even eat them.

Fire ants themselves originate in South America; they ended up in the U.S. due to human movement. Ed LeBrun, a research associate with the Texas invasive species research program at the College of Natural Sciences, calls them “opportunistic nesters” and advises people to check to make sure the crazy ants have not settled in an RV or the dirt of a house plant, lest they be transplanted via human activity.

You’d think that these stories would give those suggesting that elephants be brought into Australia to control fires and feral animals good reason to think again!

All photos from Thinkstock;video of tawny crazy ants via Joe A. MacGown/YouTube


Magdalena C.
Alice L.about a year ago

Thank you!

Melitta M.
Melitta M.2 years ago

Thanks for sharing!
Actually, the photo on 4. is not a Burmese Python , but a Reticulated Python, which was also introduced in the Everglades, and may grow bigger than the Burmese one.

Charmaine C.
Charmaine C.2 years ago

Not only animals but invasive and out of place plants cause massive problems. Thanks for the article.

Nadine H.
Nadine H.2 years ago

We need to do something, the question is WHAT.

Kathy G.
Kathy G.2 years ago

Galapagos is a prime example of how invasive species affect an environment

Paul M.
Paul M.3 years ago

I think the cane toad deserved a mention ... introduced to Australia to eat the cane beetle ... jumped the fence ... oh, rabbits and foxes ... introduced to provide a bit of sport for the landowners ... jumped the fence ... cats ... carp ... We've got them all.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

watch "Strange Days on Planet Earth" hosted by Edward Norton. It addresses this also

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Annelies Haussler
Liessi Haussler3 years ago

What irony. Human beings writing about invasive species.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

So how do most of them migrate? What can we do?