INVASIVE SPECIES: Driving Biodiversity Loss & Disharmony
Our planet is experiencing biodiversity loss on an unprecedented scale. Last year, the United Nations released the stunning results of its first comprehensive study of biodiversity -- and the news is dire.
One U.N. source sums it up this way:
Current global response insufficient;
‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature;
Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good;
Most comprehensive assessment of its kind;
1,000,000 species threatened with extinction.
The devastating effects of biodiversity loss cannot be understated. Biodiversity loss:
> cripples essential elements of an ecosystem
> limits potential food sources for elements in the ecosystem
> limits discovery of potential sources of medical knowledge or healing
> increases the likelihood of natural disasters, including landslides and fires
> decreases food production due to overtaxing the productivity of the land
> potentially increases likelihood of infectious disease or new diseases
Many factors drive biodiversity loss, including pollution, climate change, and agricultural practices. But one driver is particularly worrisome: invasive species. Some even consider introduced species a greater threat to native biodiversity than pollution, harvest, and disease combined.
Generally, an invasive species involves a non-native plant or animal that begins to have negative consequences in its new habitat. The invasive species may cause environmental harm, economic harm, or harm to people or other living things. The lack of natural predators is usually an important factor in the new species causing harm.
The Japanese knotweed offers a good example. It’s native to Japan, and was accidentally brought over to the United States where it has no natural predators. It erupts in great numbers and can destroy ecosystems.
But the term “invasive species” can mean different things to different people.
Dandelions, which were not native to the United States, but arrived after the European colonization of the US, are considered naturalized because they’ve persisted for such a long period.
A native plant or weed may even be considered “invasive.” For example, fleabane (Erigeron annuus ), which is native to the US, is considered invasive by some due to its prolific ability to produce seeds.
Invasive species aren’t just plants.
In Hawaii, for example, invasive pigs, rats, goats, deer, and slugs, are destroying native flora. The rare Psychotria grandiflora, or Kopiko, an elongated white flower, is one example of a plant that’s been impacted by invasive species.
Some of the species most at risk are among the rarest on this planet. There are only around thirty Kopiko plants left on Kauai (the “garden island”), the only Hawaiian island where these plants grow.
Rare or unusual plants have evolved in highly distinctive ways or inhabit unique environments. Their extinction matters. We may lose the ability to appreciate their beauty. We have no idea whether the plant offers medicinal value. We don’t fully understand their role in a particular ecosystem. Of this we can be sure: invasive predators cause irreversible loss.
Invasive species create a monoculture, or one species of a plant over a large area. Examples of invasive plants (in the US) include Japanese Bamboo, garlic mustard, Common Reed and others. When you look at a Japanese Bamboo stand, that’s all there is. And if you observe that stand of plants, you will observe virtually NO wildlife using them. Some insects will be present, but overall, the number of species using the plant are minimal.
Compare this domination to native species, like black cherry (Prunus serotine). One black cherry tree can contain 450 different species of butterflies and moths! Now, that is diversity! Think of how thrilled an insect-eating bird would be to find that tree from which to eat.
Ironically, despite its quality, some people consider the native black cherry an invasive plant. Also, despite its usefulness in the United States, it is considered an invasive in Europe, where it lacks natural predators.
Let’s talk about invasive insects. Like the plants and mammalian predators discussed above, these are insects that have escaped their homeland via shipping, transportation, ballast water, or other means. The invasive emerald ash borer likely arrived in the United States from China via wood packing material. It was first identified in Michigan in 2002. Within approximately 20 to 30 years, it has burrowed into and killed tens of millions of ash trees in 30 states.
The natural world was not designed to be dominated by one particular plant or animal species (perhaps that includes mankind as well?). Let’s go back to the beginning of all things. In Genesis 1:26, we understand that God created mankind in His image, and gave him “dominion” over the natural world (more on that nuanced term in a later blog). God specifically showed mankind the value and richness of biodiversity:
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God declared all of His creation “good.” There was diversity in plants. There were many different types of animals and birds and creatures. The text conveys a sense of harmony and balance in the natural world. And even though mankind was given “dominion” over the natural world, the deep meaning of that term refers to stewardship, or the idea of care and concern for the natural world.
Our world needs care and concern right now. Our efforts should continue to be multilayered, but we must never forget that disharmony wreaks havoc on us all. Harmony is a sign of restoration, health, and sustainability.
Let’s focus our attention, then, on some of the main drivers of biodiversity loss so that we can work towards restoring that harmony.
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