Spreading invasive species via the Internet

Spreading invasive species via the Internet

February 12, 2016


Invasive species have posed a problem for centuries. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, plants, animals, parasites, and more have been brought from their native habitats to new areas. Most of these species cannot adapt to the new environment and end up dying off. But studies report that 1 in 1,000 species takes over, forcing native species into extinction and posing major ecological threats.

According to BirdLife, in the past 500 years, invasive species of rats, cats, and mice have led to the extinction of over 70 bird species. For example, the Pythons in the Everglades have caused such a problem that Florida has begun to host the Burmese Python Removal Competition.

The bad news is that the Internet is making it even easier for invasive species to take over.

Tracking the sale of invasive species

In 2015, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich tracked the sale of plant species across the Internet. Researchers followed ten websites including eBay, and the results didn’t look good. There were 2,625 species for sale, 510 of them were invasive. And 35 of the plants for sale were on the International Union for Conservation’s list of 100 Worst Invasive Species.

The Internet lacks the regulation needed to prevent these species from being transported from one country to another. According to Lirong Liu, an assistant professor of economics at Texas A&M University and researcher of the red streaked leafhopper, “The Internet makes invasive species prevention so much tougher. International trade has always been partially responsible for invasive species introduction. Internet sales are unfortunately a new form of international trade, but the transactions are between individuals and almost impossible to regulate.”

Most of the time, people are buying these plants because they will look pretty in gardens. But, the list of invasive species in the U.S. alone numbers tens of thousands. Some examples cited by Farm Journal include “cheatgrass in the West; zebra mussels and Asian carp in the North; hydrilla and Asian citrus psyllid in Florida; Japanese climbing fern in Georgia; emerald ash borer in the Northeast; or feral hogs, fire ants and kudzu in the South.”

Why it’s a problem

It costs a lot of money to combat these invasive species. It’s estimated that removal and prevention in the U.S. can cost anywhere from $120 to $300 billion, and this doesn’t even take into account damage to the ecosystems and habitats. Also, BirdLife reports, “Invasive alien species cost the EU an estimated 12 billion euros a year through destroyed crops, disrupted ecosystems, spread of diseases, etc.”

But, there may be hope. The BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Program along with Natuurpunt, a volunteer organization with the goal to protect all forms of nature, have created an online system to track invasive species. Volunteers can take photos to report any sightings of when and where they come across invasive species. According to the article, this data was used to help control the growth of the Ruddy Duck species, and it is still being used in monitoring exotic geese populations.

Although the Internet can help track invasive species, it looks like it poses more cause for concern. Until regulations regarding the sale of plants on the Internet have been addressed, we may see invasive species populations continue to rise.