Invasion of the Quagga Mussel: A Real Threat or Just a Media Scare?
Reports that an invasive species of mussel has reached British waters has put the UK’s press into overdrive with their scare stories, but it’s important to look at the facts behind these reports and whether the threat to local species is really as worrying as we’re being led to believe.
What is the Quagga Mussel and Where Was It Found?
The quagga mussel is usually found in waters around the southwest of Europe, spanning the Black and Caspian seas. However, at the beginning of October, a quagga mussel was found in Wraysbury River near Heathrow airport, West London. This is the first time we have record of a quagga reaching UK waters independently and scientists are taking notice.
Why did the Quagga Mussel Migrate?
Cambridge researchers publishing their study of migrating invasive marine species in the Journal of Applied Ecology believe that recent canal constructions across Europe has allowed about 14 of 23 potentially problematic invasive species, including other nefarious-sounding organisms like the bloody red shrimp and the killer shrimp, to migrate out of their native range and into waters around and indeed within the UK.
There are also other ways the quagga mussel can get around. It has been known to hide in ornamental water-based plants as they are shipped around Europe. In addition, vehicles used both in and for the setting up of water sports activities may also contribute to the mussel’s spread.
The researchers believe that it may now only be a matter of time before other species join the mussels in colonizing UK waters, and for native wildlife there is the potential for that to be devastating.
Is This Really as Bad as Media Reports Suggest?
To be clear, the mussels do not represent an imminent threat to biodiversity, but they could be.
Now scientists, by their nature, are usually a conservative bunch. They’re unlikely to use emotive language for no reason. However, the researchers behind the study tracking these migrating species appear to be very worried indeed.
“I think we are at a tipping point,” Dr David Aldridge, the report’s co-author, told the BBC. “We’ve been watching species heading our way from the Ponto-Caspian region for the past 20 years or so. They are all building up in the Rhine system just over the ocean. We think that particularly now that the quagga mussel has just arrived, we are about to have a big meltdown.”
So Why is the Quagga’s Appearance in UK Waters so Concerning?
When it comes to the quagga, the mussel is an aggressive species that will quickly out-compete the UK’s native mussel population. In fact, it actually will smother rival mussel species by burying them in sea beds. For evidence of this, one need only look to the United States, where the quagga has out-competed the itself quite aggressive zebra mussel — a mussel with its own reputation for having clogged up the United States’ Great Lakes.
The same can also be said for the so-called killer shrimp, whose presence in UK waters is also worrying scientists. The shrimp will seek out and kill competing shrimp species, quickly devastating other populations while allowing its own to thrive. As the shrimp is frequently a partner to the quagga, arriving at roughly the same time as the quagga wherever they invade, the quagga’s presence is therefore even more troubling.
Also, due to the fact that the mussel breeds at a much higher rate than native populations, it posses a significant infrastructure problem as quagga have been known to block water pipes, leading to potentially millions of pounds worth of damage.
There’s also the problem that, where these relatively small organisms go, other larger predators often follow simply because they need the food. If that were to happen, and some of the shrimp and quagga’s main predators do invade UK waters, many animals they might prey on here will be little prepared for the onslaught.
Is There Any Way to Stop the Quagga Mussel?
New Scientist reports that researchers have come up with a way of culling the quagga mussel’s numbers by use of a so-called ”poison pill.” This pill is made out of the same kinds of material that the mussels digest, but contains a salt solution that will kill the mussels. Careful use of such a pill could be targeted at heavy concentrations of the quagga, and so would pose only a minimal risk to native species.
However, it’s going to take more than these pills to lower the possible harms that such invasive species could cause local wildlife, and so far European governments seem at a loss for what to do without completely crippling trade and commerce.
As such, this is one time when the media scaremongering actually might have more than just a grain of truth, but it is important to remember that there is still time for innovative solutions.