Invasive Species: What are they really?

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Although a globally impactful concept, the term invasive species typically receives a negative connotation from those who are often confused about how a species becomes invasive and situated in an area that it has not been historically found. The term may be thought to imply there is some intent on the species part to integrate itself into an ecosystem, when in reality is often caused by human interaction. In honor of National Invasive Species Awareness Week occurring this month, I’d like to explore this topic more with you.

Humans are good at moving from place to place at a rate that is not biologically natural. Traveling from Singapore to Chicago within a span of 24 hours should not be natural for any organism but happens every single day for humans. Simply walking through the terminals of an airport will have you interacting with hundreds of people from all over the planet on any given day. Although exciting, this constant unnatural movement sometimes affects other life forms, who are carried along for the ride without their intent.

Needing to survive in the unnatural environment they have been placed in, there are countless examples of species trying to establish themselves within ecosystems not suitable to them. This sometimes leads to negative impacts on the natural inhabitants of the entire community and is a big deal if left unchecked. Because of this, some scientists fear that we are headed toward a homogenized planet, which is probably not good for most organisms.

Stories of the sea lamprey and Asian carp populations entering the Great Lakes ecosystems are well known and have become standard examples when talking about invasive species. In fact, some of my patients at Shedd Aquarium are these so-called invaders. Multiple invasive species reside at Shedd under special permit in our At Home on the Great Lakes gallery. It is through this gallery that we hope our visitors begin to develop deeper understanding about how these non-native species have entered our local watershed and conceptualize what the term invasive species really means.

<p>Sea lampreys, <em>Petromyzon marinus</em>, seen here at Shedd Aquarium.</p>

Sea lampreys, Petromyzon marinus, seen here at Shedd Aquarium.

©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

To ensure that these animals do not spread to our local environment, we take several precautions to ensure our ecosystems safety. These precautions include our specially designed containment exhibits that have a unique water filtration system that treats any water from their exhibits before it goes to drain. For our peskier critters, we even have a special quarantine room that holds insects viewed as potential pests. All of these precautions are aimed at preventing the havoc that can occur when an animal enters an area they are not native to.

Sometimes that havoc happens when someone ‘releases’ a pet. There are countless stories and examples of animals that are introduced to a part of the globe by someone who could not care for them anymore. Regardless of the reason for their release, these animals often perish if they are not adaptable to their environment. Another case scenario is that the animal might thrive and disturb their new environment. This is how we hear stories of someone catching a piranha in Illinois or giant Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Remember, pet ownership is a rewarding experience but also an incredible responsibility.

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