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Newly Arriving Plants, Animals and People All Part of Nature's Ever-Changing Mosaic

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 28, 2011
Updated: Friday, April 29, 2011

Scientists and citizens worry about new invasive species that move into our woodlands and waterways. The so-called invaders become more common as world trade helps transport living organisms from one place on the planet to another, and as climate change impels many species to seek more hospitable environments.

But are new-comers actually alien, and is their arrival necessarily trouble?

Asian carp that can grow three feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds can frighten passengers in a canoe. Catfish farmers in the American south imported these fish from Asia in the 1970s to filter and clean their ponds. A Time story by Bryan Walsh explains how the carp multiplied exponentially, escaped from the ponds, and began devouring the plankton that supports the bottom layers of the food chain in rivers. Wildlife experts speculate there maybe millions of them in the Illinois River alone. They leap out of the water, and have injured some boatersGovernment officials and commercial and sports fishermen are worried they may escape into the Great Lakes, where they could wreak havoc with the ecosystems, literally starving trout and other fish. Attempts are underway to build electric barriers blocking their entry.

A National Geographic story by Susan McGrath describes non-native reptiles lurking in the Everglades, and the unfamiliar snakehead fish, also called "frankenfish," that have alarmed people who have seen them in Maryland waterways. One of the best known non-native plants is the Kudzu vinebrought from Japan in the late 1800s, now are estimated to cover more than seven million acres in the south. The woody vines can grow as much as a foot a day, covering anything in their path, including cars, buildings and telephone polls. They literally suffocate other plants with their heavy foliage. But during the first half of the twentieth century, their cultivation was promoted for forage, ground cover, and preventing soil erosion.

Hugh Raffles, an anthropologist who explores the relationships among people, animals and things, writes that "just as America is a nation built by immigrants, our natural landscape is a shifting mosaic of plant and animal life." In his New York Times story "Mother Nature's Melting Pot," Raffles says that like people, other living organisms travel in ways we can't always know or control, arrive unannounced and change each other and their environments. He says some immigrant plants and animals help keep the environment strong, and some native species are harmful.For instance, he says zebra muscles, Caspian Sea natives believed to have reached U.S. waterways by ballast from ocean vessels, can increase small fish populations by improving water quality (pdf). The honeybee was introduced to the Americas from Europe in the 1600s and became indispensable for agriculture. What's native and what's alien? Increased intermingling and recombining may blur the distinction. The kudzu vine flourished because the climate of the southern states was so hospitable to it. The population of the native mountain pine beetle (pdf) has skyrocketed to disastrous effect, largely because of climate change, to which ironically, its numbers contribute.

In his thoughtful piece, Raffles, who is himself an immigrant, suggests that our non-native plants and animals deserve thoughtful, inclusive evaluation that considers the importance of healthy diversity in our shifting and dynamic living environments.

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