Invasive Species In North America (PHOTOS)
With the advent of globalization, people sometimes forget that it is often best for animal and plant species to remain in their original habitats.
Whether they are mussels clinging to boats, fish farmers trying to boost industry productivity, or kids bringing over exotic pythons as pets, invasive species are a threat to the diversity and sustainability of local ecosystems. As awareness of invasive species increases, more and more organizations are extending a helping hand to put everything back in order.
Click through to learn about some of the invasive species threatening North America.
The starling is a small black bird, <a href="http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/Sturnus_vulgaris1.jpg" target="_hplink">easily recognizable by its purple and green iridescent plumage.</a> As if the tips of its feathers were dipped in cream, white flecks cover the bird's body, and its bill ranges from a dull brown in the winter months to a chipper yellow come summertime. While the starling may sound beautiful and majestic, it's probably one of the most detested little birds in North America, most often described as dirty, loud and downright invasive. Originally hailing from Great Britain, a quirky drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin imported the bird to North America in 1860-61. He released over 100 starlings in New York City's Central Park with the romantic intentions of bringing to North America every bird ever mentioned by William Shakespeare. While his intentions may have been noble and romantic at the time, the starling is now a prime example of how disastrous it can be when humans meddles with nature. According to Columbia University, an <a href="http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/Sturnus_vulgaris.html" target="_hplink">estimated 200 million starlings</a> can be found in North America, their habitat ranging from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It roosts in hoards of up to a million, devouring massive amounts of seed, fruit, insects and even fungi when times are tough. The starling has proven to be quite the resilient bird -- it is what is known as a "habitat generalist," able to triumph in almost any climate. It is an aggressive bird, evicting native birds from their homes, competing (and most often winning) for food and space. A cavity nester, the starling competes with native species such as woodpeckers, Great Crested Flycatchers, Tree Swallows, Eastern Bluebirds and Purple Martins. Many attempts have been made eradicate the starling from the U.S., including installing speakers to broadcast starling distress calls, spraying them with detergents, using poison pellets, firing roman candles to destroy flocks, and even creating recipes for starling pies. It just goes to show how fast a Shakespearean dream can transform into a Hitchcockian nightmare. Flickr photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/10565417@N03/6246539670/" target="_hplink">jidanchaomian.</a>
Native to Central America, cane toads were introduced to Hawaii from Puerto Rico in 1932 as a biological control agent for sugar cane beetles and other pests. <a href="http://www.wec.ufl.edu/extension/wildlife_info/frogstoads/bufo_marinus.php" target="_hplink">In 1955, a pet dealer accidentally released 101 cane toads near the Miami airport, according to the University of Florida</a>. Cane toads are a highly predacious species with a voracious appetite. The toad is known for eating pretty much anything, from other native toads and frogs to dog food. Because of the toad's poisonous sacs, the toad is dangerous to any native species that tries to eat it, therefore limiting the amount of predators in its newfound habitat. The toad has proven to be particularly harmful (and often fatal!) to dogs, cats, birds and snakes. Over the past 70 years, the toad has found its way from south Florida to mid Florida, laying upwards of 50,000 eggs each mating season. In addition to North America, cane toads are particularly invasive in parts of Australia, where they are running rampant. Measures such as public awareness campaigns, man-made barriers and gene technology have been implemented for cane toad prevention and management. Flickr photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/briangratwicke/4386520234/" target="_hplink">brian.gratwicke.</a>
Giant African Land Snails
This isn't your <a href="http://youtu.be/VF9-sEbqDvU" target="_hplink">cute, little Marcel the Shell</a>. The giant African land snail is one giant pest, growing up to 10 inches long. Indigenous to East Africa, the snail can now be in found in the United States, in Florida and Hawaii. <a href="http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/09/15/2409202/giant-snails-invade-miami-subdivision.html" target="_hplink">According to the <em>Miami Herald</em></a>, the snails first made their way to Florida in 1966 when a little boy brought them as pets from Hawaii. When his grandmother got tired of the slimy creatures, she released them into her garden. A simultaneous hermaphrodite (both sexes have testes and ovaries), these slow movers are anything but slovenly when it comes to reproducing -- they can lay up to 200 eggs at a time. <a href="http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/animals/africansnail.shtml" target="_hplink"> The United States Department of Agriculture and some scientists claim that the snails are among the most damaging snails in the world</a>, eating over 500 different kinds of plants -- and, as noted by NPR, <a href="http://www.npr.org/2011/09/17/140540662/miami-invaded-by-giant-house-eating-snails?ps=cprs" target="_hplink">sometimes even concrete and stucco!</a>. Flickr photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/31031835@N08/5699583730/" target="_hplink">John Tann.</a>
Indigenous to South America, this semi-aquatic, orange-toothed varmint was introduced to the United States in 1889 for its fur, but when the fur market came to a collapse in the 1940s, thousands were released into the wild. It is now established in over 15 states and part of Canada, most notably coastal states. While benefits of the nutria include the fact that they eat tons of overabundant weeds and vegetation, they are far outweighed by the fact that they reap irreparable damage to the surrounding native ecosystem, especially to marshes and wetlands, <a href="http://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/wildlife_damage/content/printable_version/fs_nutria10.pdf" target="_hplink">according to the United States Department of Agriculture</a>. In addition to contributing to coastal land loss, this invasive species is also <a href="http://www.lamer.lsu.edu/invasivespecies/nutria/index.html" target="_hplink">contributing to the decline of the native muskrat</a>, according to research done by Louisiana State University. Flickr photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/amboo213/3634696530/" target="_hplink">amboo who?.</a>
While zebra mussels may look harmless, they are wreaking havoc on the waters in which they infest. Native to southeast Russia, they were first discovered in 1769. They are now found across the United States. It is believed they were<a href="http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/factsheets/zebra_mussel.html" target="_hplink"> first introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1980s</a> by European cargo ships, according to Rhode Island Sea Grant. About the size of a dime, the mussels attach themselves to anything and everything, which is how they hitched the ride on ships to the U.S. In addition to ships, the mussels attach themselves to other native mussels, smothering and eventually killing them. They also attach themselves to drainage pipes, clogging them. The mussels survive by filtering plankton, which in effect increases water clarity. This increase in water clarity directly impacts the food chain, causing underwater vegetation to grow deeper and denser, decreasing the amount of food for larval fish. Flickr photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/surrealis_uk/303575412/" target="_hplink">surrealis_uk.</a>
Highly invasive, these giant snakes are even scarier than they look. One of the largest snakes in the world, they have slithered their way to the Everglades, far from their original habitat of southern and southeast Asia. The University of Florida claims the pythons became <a href="http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw286" target="_hplink"> a problem in the 1990s</a> when they were imported to the United States as pets. Pet owners, finding themselves in over their heads, released the snakes into the wild. Fortunately for the snakes (unfortunately for the Everglades), the Everglades make for a great, tropical habitat for them to thrive and reproduce in the thousands. Most excellent swimmers and tree climbers, these carnivorous snakes pose a threat to many native, endangered species and humans alike. The snakes can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh up to 250 pounds. <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080223111456.htm" target="_hplink">According to Science Daily</a>, the python could find suitable living conditions in up to a third of the United States, which can be seen on its climate maps. Flickr photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tambako/802763252/" target="_hplink">Tambako the Jaguar.</a>
Africanized Honey Bees
Known to most as "killer bees," these hybrids were <a href="http://www.uaex.edu/Other_Areas/publications/PDF/MP451.pdf" target="_hplink">first created in the 1950s by man-made breeding of the African honeybee with Brazilian honeybees</a>, with the hopes of creating a bee with excellent honey-making capabilities, and better adaptability to the South American climate, according to a publication by the University of Arkansas. The bees started traveling north and South, <a href="http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/animals/afrhonbee.shtml" target="_hplink">eventually reaching the United States in the early 1990s</a>, as indicated by the United States Department of Agriculture. The bees interbred with European honeybees, creating a "killer" hybrid that shows characteristics of both species. These Africanized honeybees are far more aggressive in nature, very protective of their hives and aren't very good at producing honey. They are also known for taking over other bees' hives, in sort of coup d'état, overthrowing the Queen bee and replacing her with one of their own. Therefore, resulting in a bee that is dangerous and a threat to the ecological diversity of the environment. Flickr photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/austinevan/3168743674/" target="_hplink">austinevan</a>. <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this article featured a photo of a robber fly, not an Africanized honey bee.</em>
Kudzu, the beautiful yet destructive plant that "ate the south" was first introduced to the United States in 1876, when it was imported from Japan. It was marketed as a decorative Oriental plant that helped prevent soil erosion; therefore, those in the southeastern portion of the U.S. were encouraged to plant it. Today, the plant can be found all over the United States. And when kudzu spreads, it spreads fast, smothering out any native plants in its path. And in order to remove the vine plant and prevent regrowth, it has to be completely and totally eradicated. Complete eradication is tough, though -- Kudzu has an enormous, complex root system -- It can be up to <a href="http://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/node/354" target="_hplink">seven inches in diameter, six feet or more in length and can weigh up to 400 pounds</a>, as stated by the University of Florida's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. Flickr photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/deestea/1387435826/" target="_hplink">Donna Sullivan Thomson.</a>
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Asian carp are native to China and southeast Asia and <a href="http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatics/asiancarp.shtml" target="_hplink">were introduced to the U.S. by the fish farming industry in the 1970s</a> -- they were used to skim algae off aquaculture ponds. While the fish farmers were well intentioned, the plan backfired when fish started putting those fins to work, escaped the farms and began their long journey up the Mighty Mississippi. <a href="http://www.epa.gov/glnpo/invasive/asiancarp/" target="_hplink">Along the way, the carp have depleted massive amounts of plankton and other natural species</a>, made apparent by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In preparation for the carp finally reaching the Great Lakes and causing enormous damage to $7.5 billion industry, the government spent over <a href="http://www.mlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2011/11/army_corps_to_restore_asian_ca.html" target="_hplink">$9.1 billion building an electric barrier to keep the fish out of the Great Lakes.</a> In addition to damaging the natural ecosystem, the carp also have a bad habit of jumping out of the water and damaging boaters. Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/acrcc/6276913542/" target="_hplink">Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee.</a>