Burmese pythons. Lionfish. Brazilian peppertrees. You may have heard about the danger of these plants and animals, but what are these invasive species truly doing to our ecosystems and what does it mean?
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) defines invasive species as any living organism that is “not native to an ecosystem and causes harm” to “the environment, the economy, or even human health.” According to the NWF, these species characteristically “reproduce quickly and spread aggressively.” Throughout the planet, these species that get introduced to foreign lands often completely dominate the natives that once ruled these ecosystems.
In South Florida alone, roughly 700,000 acres of land covered by native sawgrass and Muhly grass are now overtaken by swaths of Brazilian Peppers and Australian Paperbarks, two non-native tree species. Not only have the introduced species affected native plants and animals, but they have also affected human life by diminishing water quality and negatively impacting commercial fisheries. Based on research from Oxford University, approximately 25% of plant and animal groups are non-native and have been introduced in the past 300 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted that these species can be imported to foreign ecosystems through the ballast water of ships, premeditated or accidental release of aquaculture species, integrations of aquarium species and many other means.
Non-native predators and herbivores can cause great ecological and monetary harm. “Their introduction disrupts delicate ecological balances and can have economic consequences when they impact commercially-important species,” said Maddie Kaufman, a research associate in the marine biology and ecology department at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric science at the University of Miami. According to biologist and ecologist Daniel Simberloff, economic loss in the United States due to invasive species averages billions of dollars per year.
According to the Southeastern Naturalist Journal, Florida has witnessed over 2,600 non-native snake reports as of 2015. The most influential species in those was the Burmese Python, which threatens the region’s ecology and disrupts South Florida’s food chain. But the most prevalent of invasive species in South Florida can be found just yards off the coast, where you may spend your beach days. The lionfish was first introduced to United States’ waters in the early 2000s, most likely by “aquarium releases,” according to a 2016 report in the Marine Ecology Progress Series. This carnivorous fish has led to a great decline in coral reef dwelling native fish and invertebrates. This is creating a deleterious effect on the foundational species of many important coral reef ecosystems.
To mitigate the rule of lionfish, people can purchase them to eat from local markets or even spearfish them for sport. If you decide to take on this more adventurous method, Kaufman suggests that you “learn how to properly handle the lionfish” because they have venomous spines. If spearfishing and lionfish aren’t your thing, you can still help combat these invasive species problems by implementing native plants in your outdoor spaces. Kaufman recommended visiting Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens. They give visitors free native plants to add to their home landscapes in order to attract native birds and insects.
Some of the most destructive non-native species in Florida, according to Florida Today:
- Burmese Pythons — These reptiles are primarily found in the Everglades and prey on endangered birds and their eggs, frogs and native snakes. The species began as pets that were released into the wild when they grew too big for owners to take care of.
- Lionfish — The poisonous, spiny lionfish traveled into the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico all the way from its native home in the Pacific Ocean. They prey on smaller fish along coral reefs and seagrass beds, upsetting the balances of these ecosystems.
- Iguanas — As one of the most prevalent species found throughout Florida, the iguana has continued to migrate northward. The reptile is known for damaging structures by burrowing and feeding on plants, snails and even bird eggs.
- Feral Hogs — Although not as commonly seen throughout the urban areas of South Florida, Feral Hogs were transported here by European settlers in the 16th century. The species’ destructive nature of rooting underground causes damage to native ecosystems while also posing a threat to humans.
words_emme watkins. photo_charles gonzalez. design_keagan larkins.
This article was published in Distraction’s winter 2020 print issue.