Invasive plants change ecosystem biodiversity

by Caroline Brown

After yesterday’s post on invasive and native plants, you might be asking yourself what all the fuss is about. What’s the difference between the stand of invasive Norway maples in my back yard and red maples (a native plant that’s also the RI state tree)?

The reason that invasive species are a problem is because they threaten the biological diversity of natural ecosystems. Your backyard is a small ecosystem, and it’s part of your larger regional ecosystem. Each ecosystem has naturally-occurring (native) plants, but invasive plants steal valuable resources from them.

Invasive species can alter ecosystems permanently. Ecologists say that, after the destruction of habitats due to development, etc., invasive species are the greatest threat to biodiversity at a global level.

Consider this: Our lecturer told us that when the dinosaurs became extinct, it was a long process–one dinosaur species became extinct every 10,000 years. But the current extinction rate for organisms such as plants and insects now is one species every 15 minutes. So, as I write this post…..well never mind, it makes me too sad to do the math.

There’s also an economic cost. Invasive species cost the U.S. approximately $137 billion in direct economic losses. This is because they can affect food crops, golf courses, the turf and ornamental industry, industrial sites, forestry, aquatic sites, recreational areas, and water supplies. Imagine if you had a lakefront property and the lake was taken over–the water obscured–by water hyacinth, an aquarium plant that people tend to dump in ponds. Your view wouldn’t be as nice and your property would lose value. In the South, water hyacinth is spreading like crazy in lakes and streams, impeding boating areas and hurting the fishing industry. (Luckily, so far, it can’t overwinter in Rhode Island.).

And speaking of the South….kudzu?!?!? WTF!? (photo of kudzu courtesy of nps.gov)

I’m indebted to the Rhode Island Natural History Survey for the information in this article. Their website is a valuable tool!

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