Alien Invasion
How It Works|Issue 114

Venture behind enemy lines on the biodiversity battlefield and weed out the ecological imposters 

Ella Carter

Aliens are living among us. Humankind cannot escape and we are entirely at their mercy... It may sound like science fiction, but these alien invaders are nothing of the sort. However, they don’t hail from the outer reaches of our universe. In fact, they’re more likely to be found lurking under a rock in your backyard. In biology, an ‘alien’ or invasive species is quite simply one that is thriving somewhere it doesn’t naturally belong.

How these uninvited guests arrive and take hold can happen naturally, or it can be at the hands of us pesky humans. Sometimes the species are transported to their new habitats by mistake, where they hitch a ride on wind or water and get deposited in a new ecosystem. Other times they are introduced by human intervention, perhaps as a solution to another problem without proper knowledge of the species, or as a cute – yet underestimated – novelty that grows into a widespread pest.

As our ancestors began to travel further and further afield, they took plants and animals of all forms along with them for the ride – often unknowingly. In the ocean, larvae of all kinds can be whisked across the planet within ballast water on ships; creatures are transported within goods along trade routes; stowaways in baggage or on clothing can go anywhere in the world just by hopping on a plane with us – the list is endless! But once a species has found an environment in which to thrive, these introductions can have disastrous consequences for populations of native plants and animals.

In the UK, American mink were introduced in 1929 to bolster the fur trade. However, thanks to escapees and deliberate releases, the population has exploded throughout the last century as they have very few natural predators. Unfortunately, the mink’s preferred prey is the water vole, and the native population has crashed as a result. Sadly, this is the pattern for the vast majority of alien invasions, where they push out the native species and make a bid to take over.

Just like the American mink, the best alien invaders are the ones who are hardy, sturdy and opportunistic. Being able to withstand harsh and often changeable conditions and survive on a wide variety of prey is essential for an invasive species; sensitive, delicate and slow-growing life forms need not apply.

Another reason why these species are able to take hold so well is because the new ecosystem will not often have any natural predators for the species. When nothing eats it, there’s nothing to keep its population in check.

Florida’s Everglades house an excellent example of this in the form of the mighty Burmese python. Native to Southeast Asia and growing up to seven metres long, these are popular exotic pets, but they can soon become unmanageable. The swamps of the Everglades are now rife with Burmese pythons that became too much of a demand for their owners and were released into the wild. Feasting on wading birds, the colossal snakes have very few natural hunters, allowing their numbers to flourish, to the detriment of local wildlife.

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