Let’s Talk: Invasive Species

An adult spotted lanternfly sits on the trunk of a tree. The spotted lanternfly is an invasive species in Pennsylvania.
The spotted lanternfly is a well-known recent example of an invasive species in Pennsylvania.

Only in New Jersey would this be the poster spread to warn about the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species on the east coast of the US that’s garnered a lot of publicity lately.

But just what is an invasive species – and is that question as simple as science’s definition makes it out to be? Let’s talk.

You’ll Read Here:

🟢What is an “invasive species”?

🟢But, what is an invasive species?

🟢What’s going on with the spotted lanternfly?

🟢Resources

What’s an Invasive Species?

By scientific definition, an invasive species is any species introduced to a new environment, most often by human intervention. Although this doesn’t always happen, the best-known invasive species are those that terrorize the habitats they’re introduced to; take, for example, kudzu.

Although a species does not have to disrupt an ecosystem to be defined as such, the most famous examples of invasive species are often extremely disruptive and fast-spreading.

This beautiful but invasive vine is illegal to plant in many US states nowadays because of just how well it’s done invasively! In order to contain the damage, the law says not to try and cultivate it – it won’t be contained!

Source: The Spruce

But, What Is an Invasive Species?

First, let’s talk niches. A niche, in biological terms, is an ecological opening in an environment that an organism fits into because of it’s morphology, behaviors, etcetera. If an organism moves to a new ecosystem and finds a niche it fits well – for example, a spotted lanternfly being carried to the eastern United States and finding plenty of un-contested food sources – it will proliferate in the ecosystem.

Next let’s consider: What makes an invasive species “invasive?” This can be a little difficult to answer.

Imagine three different spiders existing on a small island out in the middle of the sea somewhere.

Spider Number One sits on a leaf blown by wind into the open sea. Luckily for Spider Number One, the mainland isn’t too far off and she makes it there alive, finding the environment to be hospitable there.

Spider Number Two sneaks into some local folks’ canoe chasing after a juicy fly. Little does she know the canoe is taking off for the nearby mainland, and that’s where she ends up to spend the rest of her spidery days.

Spider Number Three decides she deserves a cruise vacation and crawls onto a ship docked on the island beach. Little does she know that ship will bring her to the mainland with no hope for return, but the ecosystem on the mainland works out for her and she moves right on in.

Which – if any of these – are invasive to the mainland?

It’s important to remember that “invasive species” is defined by humankind – meaning it’s colored by human priorities and perspectives. Organisms shift to new habitats all the time over the eons – that’s part of evolution. But when humans bring a species to a new location and it takes root there and disturbs the well-known balance in that ecosystem, we call that invasive.

It’s interesting to consider that humans have probably been re-distributing species since long before we had formal scientific biology or cruise ships. We’re animals, a part of nature just as much as the next organism.

We should also recognize that certain species, those we humans move to new ecosystems but that do not seem to disturb the ecosystem as we perceive it (and/or are useful to us) are dubbed naturalized species or simply non-native species. A good example of a naturalized species is White Man’s Footstep, or plantain.

What’s going on with the Spotted Lanternfly?

So why all the fuss over the spotted lanternfly the last few years? They’re significantly pesty to plants we know and love! “Spotted lanternfly has proven to be a serious pest of grapes (both cultivated and wild). Besides agricultural crops like hops, apples, peaches, and other tree fruits, they move into wooded and residential areas to feed on black walnut, maples, tulip poplar, and black cherry. Because of the copious amount of honeydew they produce, SLF has become a significant nuisance in residential areas, promoting the growth of sooty mildew and attracting other insects.” (Cornell College of Agricultural and Life Sciences).

Efforts have been made to curtail further spread and kill off already-existing invasive populations in the eastern US.

There is certainly merit to controlling spread of invasive species like the lanternfly, if only for our own good. Again, after all, we too are part of nature.

Spotted lanternfly has proven to be a serious pest of grapes…hops, apples, peaches, and other tree fruits…black walnut, maples, tulip poplar, and black cherry…a significant nuisance in residential areas, promoting the growth of sooty mildew and attracting other insects.

Cornell College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

However, we should continue to question our views of how we as humans act in nature. We tend to separate ourselves as being above nature, adjacent to nature, having outgrown nature. We forget ourselves. And of course we cause problems that we have a responsibility to fix; I only hope we can be more conscious of our reasoning and of the shortcomings of our knowledge.

So what’s an invasive species? A species that has found a niche outside of the environment it was found in prior and disrupts that new environment. Basically. It’s a basic biology concept, but we’re naive in thinking life is basic at all!

Resources

  1. PSU Extension
  2. National Invasive Species Information Center
  3. Cornell College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
  4. Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall-Kimmerer
  5. My own work @ Expii


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