Monday, August 3, 2009

Lionfish and Pythons: invasive species paying the ultimate price

Well, I'm back from a very successful trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Hopefully I will have impressed a few listeners before they watch shark television programming that seems to be obsessed with one thing this year: shark attacks.

I caught two interesting news bits on invasive species. The introduction of foreign animal and plant life into an ecosystem can have disastrous effects either on the ecosystem itself - as in the case of invasive seaweeds or predators like the lionfish - or on our man-made infrastructures - like the damage caused to water pipes from freshwater mussels.

1. Speaking of lionfish: their population has been exploding in the warm waters off Florida and the Caribbean, ever since their introduction by aquarists who could no longer care for them at home and released them into the wild. Voracious by nature, the beautiful lionfish was thought to possibly be held in check through predation by larger animals like groupers. While that still may be the case someday, at the moment it's a losing battle. One that has prompted the development of "lionfish tournaments" which have netted as many as 1200+ lionfish in a single event.

2. TIME magazine just reported on a government-sanctioned program to rid the Florida Everglades of exotic Asian pythons - again, introduced into the wild by owners who could no longer manage them at home. These reptiles, like the Burmese python, can reach a length of up to 18 feet and can disrupt the Everglade's predator-prey hierarchy by feeding on everything from small rodents all the way up to the typical apex predator of the Everglades, the alligator. Officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation are working with snake experts to round up some of the estimated 150,000 pythons and are considering even issuing bounty hunter permits.

It's a sad price that has to be paid by all invasive species, whether plant or animal, when the result is their wholesale destruction. But the real villain lies with man either through his thoughtlessness, negligence, or perverse need to own exotic animals as pets. And because of it, we must then cover our tracks at the end of a spear or the barrel of a gun.

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