What Shall We Do About Invasive Species?

I think about invasive species a lot. This blog doesn’t really reflect that though. I have been avoiding a deep dive into the subject mainly because there is so much to say about it and I don’t really want this to become “the invasive species blog.” Admittedly, I’m also trying to avoid controversy. Some people have very strong opinions about invasive species, and I don’t always agree. But then an article entitled Taking the long view on the ecological effects of plant invasions appeared in the June 2015 issue of American Journal of Botany. Intrigued by the idea of “taking the long view,” I read the article and decided that now is as good a time as any to start exploring this topic in greater depth.

However, before getting into the article, we should define our terms. “Invasive species” is often used inappropriately to refer to any species that is found outside of its historic native range (i.e. the area in which it evolved to its present form). More appropriate terms for such species are “introduced,” “alien,” “exotic,” “non-native,” and “nonindigenous.” The legal definition of an invasive species (according to the US government) is “an alien species that does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Even though this definition specifically refers to “alien species,” it is possible for native species to behave invasively.

These terms refer not just to plants but to all living organisms. The term “noxious weed,” on the other hand, is specific to plants. A noxious weed is a plant species that has been designated by a Federal, State, or county government as “injurious to public health, agriculture, recreation, wildlife, or property.” A “weed” is simply a plant that, from a human perspective, is growing in the wrong place, and any plant at any point could be determined to be a weed if a human says so. (I’ll have more to say about human arrogance later in the post.)

Rush skeletonweed (Chondrilla juncea) - labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

Rush skeletonweed (Chondrilla juncea) – labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

The authors of the AJB article (S. Luke Flory and Carla M. D’Antonio) begin by clarifying that “most introduced species are not problematic.” Those that are, however, can “cause significant ecological and economic damage.” This damage is well documented, and it is the reason why billions of dollars are spent every year in the battle against invasive species. But there is a dearth in our research: “less is known about how ecological effects of invasions change over time.” The effects of invasive species could “increase, decrease, or be maintained over decades,” and “multiple community and ecosystem factors” will determine this. For this reason, the authors are calling for “concentrated efforts to quantify the ecological effects of plant invasions over time and the mechanisms that underlie shifting dynamics and impacts.” Armed with this kind of information, managers can better direct their efforts towards invasive species determined to be “the most problematic.”

The authors go on to briefly explain with examples why an invasive species population may decline or be maintained over time, highlighting selected research that demonstrates these phenomena. Research must continue with the aim of improving our understanding of the long term effects of plant invasions. The authors acknowledge that this “will require carefully designed experiments,” “patient and persistent research efforts,” and significant amounts of money. However, they are convinced that through a widespread collaborative effort it can be done. They encourage researchers to deposit data obtained from their research in open source online repositories so that future meta-analyses can be conducted. The information available in these online repositories can be used to develop management plans and help predict “future problematic invasions.”

Considering the amount of time and resources currently spent on confronting invasive species, the approach proposed by the authors of this article is quite reasonable. It seems absurd to continue to battle a problematic species that will ultimately be brought down to more manageable levels by natural causes. It also seems absurd to battle against a species that is essentially here to stay.

Field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis) - labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

Field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis) – labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

And that brings me to the point in which I make enemies. Take a look at the terms defined earlier. When we talk about introduced species, we are referring to introductions by humans, whether purposeful or accidental. An “alien” species introduced to a new location by wind, water, or animal (other than human) would be considered a natural introduction, right? If that species becomes established in its new location, it would simply be expanding its range. If a human brought it there, again whether purposefully or accidentally, it would be considered an exotic indefinitely.

Humans have been moving species around since long before we became the humans we are today in the same way that a migratory bird might move a species from one continent to another. At what point during our evolution did our act of moving species around become such a terrible thing?

I will concede that our species has become an incredibly widespread species, able to move about the planet in ways that no other species can. We also have technological advances that no other species comes close to matching. In the time that our species has become truly cosmopolitan, the amount of species introductions that we have participated in has increased exponentially. Leaving ecological destruction in our wake is kind of our modus operandi. I don’t want to make excuses for that, but I also don’t see it unfolding any other way. Give any other species the opportunities we had, and they probably would have proceeded in the same manner. Just consider any of the most notorious invasive species today – “opportunist” is their middle name.

More and more, as we are able to see what we have done, we are making efforts to “fix it.” But how de we rewind time? And if we could, when do we rewind back to? And how do we not “ruin it” again? The earth does not have a set baseline or a condition that it is supposed to be in at any given time. The earth just is. It is operating in a state of randomness, just like everything else in the universe. Any idea of how the earth must look at any given time is purely philosophical – conceived of by humans. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to repair the damage, but we should acknowledge that the repairs we’re trying to make are largely for the perpetuation of our own species. Yeah, we’ve developed a soft spot for other species along the way (thankfully), but ultimately we’re just trying to maintain. The earth, on the other hand, would be fine without us.

So, what shall we do about invasive species? I’m not entirely sure. The only thing I’m certain of is that I will continue to ruminate on them and potentially bore you with more blog posts in the future. Until next time…

Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) - labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) – labeled a noxious weed in Idaho

Kudzu Ate the South…Now Looks North

In 1876, an Asian vine was introduced to the people of the United States at a centennial celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a fairly benign looking vine, with its leaves of three and its cluster of sweet pea like flowers, but its exotic appeal must have been quite enticing, because it took off…and not just in popularity.

The plant that caught the eye of these early Americans was called kudzu (or kuzu in Japanese). It is a plant in the genus Pueraria in the family Fabaceae (the pea family). The plants first introduced to the U.S. were likely to have consisted of more than a single species such as P. montana, P. lobata, P. edulis, and others, or were hybrids of these species. They were initially lauded for their ornamental value but soon after were recognized for their potential as animal feed. By the 1930’s, when soil erosion had become a major issue, kudzu was deployed by the U.S. government to combat it. At least 85 million government-funded kudzu seedlings later, and the southeastern portion of the United States had secured a future dominated by this relentless and unforgiving vine.

Innocent and harmless is how kudzu must have first appeared, especially to those looking for a fast growing, large-leaved, vining plant to provide quick shade for porches, offering relief from the sun during those sweltering southern summers. Little did they know, however, if left unchecked, that prized vine could engulf homes and outbuildings, cover and pull down trees and utility poles, and choke out crops and pastures in the matter of a single growing season.

(photo credit: eol.org)

(photo credit: eol.org)

Kudzu was added to the Federal Noxious Weed List in 1997, long after it had established itself throughout the southeastern U.S. It now covers more than 3 million hectares, spreading at a pace of about 50,000 hectares (120,000 acres) per year. It is said that a kudzu vine can grow up to a foot in a single day or about 60 feet in a growing season. It is a twining vine, wrapping itself around any upright structure it can access and relying on that support in order to advance upwards. This gives it the advantage of using more resources for growth and expansion of both roots and shoots rather than on the resource demanding task of producing woody stems. Like other members of the pea family, it gets much of its nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process called nitrogen fixation. Because of this, kudzu can thrive in nutrient poor soils. Kudzu is also drought-tolerant, has leaves that follow the sun throughout the day in order to maximize photosynthesis, reproduces clonally by layering (stems in contact with the ground grow roots and detach from the parent plant), and (in North America) is free from the pests and diseases commonly associated with it in its native habitat. For these reasons and others, kudzu has become one of the most notorious, pervasive, and ecologically harmful weeds in the U.S., costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages every year.

A close-up of kudzu flowers (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

A close-up of kudzu flowers (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

kudzu foliage and flowers

Foliage and flowers of kudzu (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

One glance at what kudzu has done in the southeastern states, and it is obvious that it is some kind of superweed. I saw firsthand just how overwhelming it can be as I drove through Mississippi several years ago. I didn’t even have to stop the car to investigate. It was easily apparent that it was the dominant species, enveloping every tree for miles alongside the highway. Currently, kudzu can be found in every county in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. But kudzu has a limitation; it doesn’t care much for freezing temperatures. Even though it has been present in parts of northern states – like Ohio, New Jersey, and Delaware – for a while now, it has generally been limited to milder locations, and it certainly doesn’t thrive in the same way that it does in the subtropical climates of the southern states. But that is changing, because the climate is changing.

Average global temperatures increased by about 1.53° F between 1880 and 2012, and this gradual increase is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Biologists and ecologists are monitoring changes in climate closely in order to observe and predict changes in the biology and ecology of our planet. Invasive species are high on the list of concerns, as climate is often a major limitation to their spread. Now that kudzu has been found in Marblehead, Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada, the fear of kudzu climbing north is becoming a reality.

Kudzu is incredibly difficult to control. It does not respond to many herbicides, and the herbicides that do affect it must be applied repeatedly over a long time period. It is an excellent forage plant, so utilizing grazing animals to keep it in check can be effective. Those who have succumbed to kudzu, acknowledging that it is here to stay, have found uses for it, including making baskets, paper, biofuel, and various food items. A compound extracted from the kudzu root is also being studied as a possible treatment for alcoholism. Kudzu has long been valued for its culinary and medicinal uses in Asia, so it is no surprise that uses would be found for it in North America. However, North Americans who embrace kudzu are taking a defeatist approach. That is, “if we can’t get rid of it, we may as well find a use for it.” This, however, should not negate nor distract from the damage it has caused and continues to cause local ecosystems and the ecological threat that it poses to areas where it is just now being introduced or may soon be introduced due to our warming climate.

Millions of dollars are spent every year to address the effects kudzu has on utility poles (phot credi: eol.org)

Millions of dollars are spent every year to remove kudzu from utility poles and replace poles pulled down by kudzu (photo credit: eol.org)

References:

Encyclopedia of Life: Pueraria Montana

Wikipedia: Kudzu in the United States

Max Shores: The Amazing Story of Kudzu

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Conservation in a Changing Climate

NASA Earth Observatory: How Much More Will the Earth Warm?

Bloomberg: Kudzu That Ate U.S. South Heads North as Climate Changes