A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines: The Growing Threat of Species Invasions

A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines: The Growing Threat of Species Invasions

by Yvonne Baskin


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The human love of novelty and desire to make one place look like another, coupled with massive increases in global trade and transport, are creating a growing economic and ecological threat. The same forces that are rapidly "McDonaldizing" the world's diverse cultures are also driving us toward an era of monotonous, weedy, and uniformly impoverished landscapes. Unique plant and animal communities are slowly succumbing to the world's "rats and rubbervines" -- animals like zebra mussels and feral pigs, and plants like kudzu and water hyacinth -- that, once moved into new territory, can disrupt human enterprise and well-being as well as native habitats and biodiversity.

From songbird-eating snakes in Guam to cheatgrass in the Great Plains, "invasives" are wreaking havoc around the world. In A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines, widely published science writer Yvonne Baskin draws on extensive research to provide an engaging and authoritative overview of the problem of harmful invasive alien species. She takes the reader on a worldwide tour of grasslands, gardens, waterways, and forests, describing the troubles caused by exotic organisms that run amok in new settings and examining how commerce and travel on an increasingly connected planet are exacerbating this oldest of human-created problems. She offers examples of potential solutions and profiles dedicated individuals worldwide who are working tirelessly to protect the places and creatures they love.

While our attention is quick to focus on purposeful attempts to disrupt our lives and economies by releasing harmful biological agents, we often ignore equally serious but much more insidious threats, those that we inadvertently cause by our own seemingly harmless actions. A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines takes a compelling look at this underappreciated problem and sets forth positive suggestions for what we as consumers, gardeners, travelers, nurserymen, fishermen, pet owners, business people -- indeed all of us who by our very local choices drive global commerce -- can do to help. "

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559630511
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 08/28/2003
Edition description: 1
Pages: 330
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Yvonne Baskin is a Montana-based science writer and author of The Work of Nature (Island Press, 1997). Her articles have appeared in Natural History, Science, Discover, The Atlantic Monthly, and numerous other publications. For A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines, she was granted access to worldwide science and policy discussions of the Global Invasive Species Program through one of its sponsors, an international consortium of scientists known as the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).

Read an Excerpt

A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines

The Growing Threat of Species Invasions

By Yvonne Baskin


Copyright © 2002 The Scientific Committee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55963-051-1


Introduction: Confronting a Shrinking World

"We must make no mistake: we are seeing one of the great historical convulsions in the world's fauna and flora. We might say, with Professor Challenger, standing on Conan Doyle's 'Lost World,' with his black beard jutting out: 'We have been privileged to be present at one of the typical decisive battles of history—the battles which have determined the fate of the world.' But how will it be decisive? Will it be a Lost World?"

—Charles Elton, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, 1958

"In contrast with the aftermath of prehistoric mass extinctions, human-dominated landscapes will encourage the generalist species to proliferate—all the more so as natural controls (predators, parasites) are preferentially eliminated. The upshot could well be a 'pest and weed' ecology, with all that implies for evolutionary history."

—Norman Myers, in the journal Science, 1997

Just a twenty-minute drive from downtown Auckland, on a steep slope behind Mick Clout's home, a lush remnant of primeval New Zealand forest remains. Spared from fire, ax, and plow because of its rugged aspect, the site still shelters two hectares of towering tree ferns, nikau palms, and the native evergreen trees the Maori, New Zealand's Polynesian settlers, call kahikatea. One fall day, as a light rain dripped soundlessly through the dense canopy and onto the rust-colored duff of the forest floor, several of us ventured into those woods hoping to see a pair of New Zealand pigeons that had taken up residence. The legendary chorus of native birdsong that greeted the first European colonists has all but vanished, and what's left of New Zealand's forests are now disquietingly silent. As we listened for the cooing of pigeons, we suddenly heard instead a high-pitched call, eerily familiar to me yet startlingly out of place on this Southern Hemisphere island: the bugling of a North American elk.

Fortunately, the elk stag was confined on a neighboring game farm, along with the European red deer hinds imported to breed with him. Only a few times each year does a hind jump the fence and invade the forest to strip the bark from Clout's palms or damage the understory. Elsewhere in New Zealand, however, invading alien deer and elk cause severe damage to forests, rivaling the destructiveness of the invasive brushtail possums brought here long ago from Australia, which strip some 18,000 metric tons of leaves each night from forests like these. Clout, a professor of ecology at the University of Auckland and chair of the Invasive Species Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), maintains poison bait stations throughout this forest patch to kill the possums, which threaten not only the trees but also nesting pigeons and other native birds. It is possums, European ferrets, rats, and other furry alien invaders that have helped to silence the birdsong in New Zealand's forests. Along a creek at the foot of the slope, Clout pointed out other, more benign-looking invaders that nevertheless menace his remnant forest: recent garden fugitives such as wandering jew, willow, pampas grass, and privet now advancing along the streambed or upslope into the forest, threatening to choke out the native plant life that provides shelter and sustenance for the pigeons and other surviving birds.

As we walked back out of the woods and toward the house, we could see North American mallards dabbling about in rain puddles on the road below. The lush hills beyond were forested with California Monterey pines and Australian eucalyptus. It could have been a scene in San Diego but for the elk. An American or European visitor can easily feel at home amid the biota of Auckland and, indeed, much of the rest of New Zealand. That's because half the plant species and all the mammals (except for two native bat species) came from somewhere else. And New Zealand is not the only place to which many of these same plants and animals have been moved. You will see many of the same beasts and much of the greenery in Cape Town or Sydney, Kuala Lumpur or Paris, San Francisco or Santiago.

The biological déjá vu of travelers today is the result of a massive game of musical chairs we have played with life on the earth, especially during the past 500 years. The extent and thoroughness of this rearrangement of plants, animals, and microbes is stunning, yet far from finished. We can find American beavers in Tierra del Fuego, African antelopes in New Mexico, Madagascar rubbervines in Queensland, and European pines in South Africa. On our increasingly connected planet, global trade and travel are accelerating the movement of organisms to places they could not have reached without our help. Their arrival is not always a cause for lament. We have transformed the living world in many ways that greatly enrich and sustain us, filling fields the world over with apples and wheat and gardens with geraniums and roses. But much of the transformation has been clumsy and careless at best, and we have created a growing litany of self-inflicted wounds. Among the freshest are the intercontinental movements of tree-killing Asian long-horned beetles, crop-devastating citrus canker, unstoppable zebra mussels, and deadly West Nile encephalitis and foot-and-mouth pathogens. These high-impact newcomers are called invasive alien species. It is the urgent need to reduce the ecological and economic fallout from the ongoing tide of invaders that is the subject of this book.

On the ecological side, the unique natural heritage that each region enjoys is increasingly besieged, not only by direct human activities but also by the overwhelming tide of new life we are introducing, deliberately or accidentally. Most alien creatures that escape or are loosed into the wild either perish or settle into new communities with little disruption. But a significant number—including the possums and privet shrubs, deer and willows, and myriad other species introduced into New Zealand—spread aggressively and invade in their new environments. These invaders dominate, disrupt, outcompete, prey on, hybridize with, or spread disease among native species or alter the terms of life in the community by changing the soil, the available light or water, the frequency of fire, or even the structure of the landscape.

Ecologists now rank biological invasions second only to habitat loss as a threat to native biodiversity in much of the world. (Biodiversity is a shorthand term ecologists use for biological diversity, the rich web of life in a community or region.) The threats come from an unlikely array of misplaced creatures, from rust fungus and avian malaria parasites to rubbervines, melaleuca trees, blackberry bushes, goats, snails, and tiny scale insects that can suck the life from trees and shrubs. Few places on the earth remain untouched by such invaders. Even in the Antarctic, seals have been exposed to cattle diseases and penguins to poultry virus. On a tiny scale, the crowd of strangers that threatens to overrun Clout's bit of forest exemplifies the beleaguered status of natural areas worldwide, from Yellowstone National Park to the Everglades, from Hawaii to the Galápagos Islands, from the mountains of the South African Cape provinces to the Italian Apennines.

On the economic and social side, the organisms ecologists call invaders are called weeds, pests, or emerging diseases when they threaten human enterprise and well-being. Invasive alien species create hardships across a spectrum of human activities, altering the character and economic potential of our lands and waters; threatening our health and that of our crops, forests, and livestock; diminishing recreational values and even our sense of place. In the United States alone, ecologist David Pimentel estimates, invasive species cause $137 billion per year in losses, damage, and control expenses.

Most of us have heard something about biological invasions. The topic is hitting the headlines and television news reports with increasing frequency. News, by nature, focuses on the striking, the singular, and the menacing new arrivals: West Nile encephalitis virus striking down people and birds in the Northeast, Asian long-horned beetles denuding parks and boulevards of beloved old shade trees, zebra mussels choking off water pipes along the Great Lakes, Formosan termites attacking the historic French Quarter of New Orleans, Africanized bees advancing across the Southwest, and Asian gypsy moths and Mediterranean fruit flies (Medflies) breaching the border.

Even as I listened to the elk bugling through the tree ferns near Auckland, the New Zealand Herald was trumpeting an alarm about the third snake in a month to have wriggled out of a shipping container in that snake-free land. Behind the scenes, quarantine inspectors in New Zealand were concerned about an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Japan, the same strain that would strike South Africa six months later and finally burst into world headlines when it hit Great Britain and parts of Europe.

What you will seldom learn from sporadic news accounts, however, is that foot-and-mouth disease and Asian gypsy moths, as well as a host of weeds and pests that will never make headlines, are all manifestations of the same growing problem—the uncontrolled movement of species worldwide, driven by the increase in global trade and travel. Only a small fraction of species that invade new regions spur rapid and dramatic transformations of landscapes, devastating disease outbreaks, crop failures, or other misery. Instead, most invaders manifest themselves in slower, more subtle ways, such as chronic degradation of habitats and landscapes, attrition of native plants and animals, or deterioration of the ecological life-support services that regulate soil fertility, plant growth, and water quality and flow.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to spark a sense of urgency or lasting commitment to action in the face of chronic problems, although they can sometimes be more devastating in the long run than the headline grabbers. Even more troubling is that this kind of gradual ecological degradation can be literally invisible to those of us who cannot easily tell one plant or insect from another, at least beyond our gardens. Nearly half of the world's people now live in urban areas; thus, many of us confront invaders directly only when new termites attack our homes or bugs our boulevard trees or microbes our health. Even those of us who spend a fair amount of time outdoors in parks, forests, or wilderness areas often cannot recognize subtle changes taking place on the land. Because most of us lack a detailed knowledge of the natural plant and animal communities around us, few can spot the strangers or detect the decline of natives as long as landscapes are still green and humming with life. I still cannot name or cite the origin of most of the grasses and wildflowers I see around my Montana home. For years, I never gave much thought to the tall, yellow-flowered plants that grew denser each summer around a foothill trail near Bozeman. I have since learned that this plant is Eurasian leafy spurge, and now I can see that its invasion has crowded out the lupines, harebells, yarrow, horsemint, and other native plants that once flourished along the trail. What I could not see from the trail is that this invasion is causing more than just a change in the scenery. Spurge now dominates some 728,000 hectares of land in Montana and North Dakota, robbing native deer and elk as well as exotic cattle of palatable forage and depressing the value and productivity of rangelands. What's more, leafy spurge is just one in a lineup of invading weeds—most of them still invisible to me—that continue to degrade the American West both economically and ecologically.

Another stumbling block to recognition and then to possible remedy is that some regions have been so utterly transformed for so long that few people know what lived there before or how the native plant and animal community once functioned ecologically. For those who are familiar with the native flora and fauna of a region, however, invasions are often the most visible element of biological change today, far more apparent than the marginalization or impending elimination of native biodiversity that the invaders may be hastening. Many heavily invaded regions may even host more species than ever before, at least temporarily, a fact that causes some skeptics to ask "What's the problem?" But in many localities, the species count will fall back as natives disappear. What's more, a steady or even increased local species count can mask a global loss of species. Too often, unique, rare, and localized species have been replaced by a cosmopolitan set of species that can be found the world over: eucalyptus and Monterey pines, brown trout and mosquito fish, starlings and bulbuls, Medflies and gypsy moths, black rats and feral goats, lantana and water hyacinth. (A feral animal or plant is one that has escaped from domestication or cultivation and become wild.) While these replacements keep the local numbers high, the earth's total tally of living species declines. What's more, these cosmopolitan replacements homogenize our experience of the world.

The very look and feel of any given place, along with the life in it, is much like any other today, and we are all poorer for it, whatever the species count. The same forces that are rapidly "McDonaldizing" the world's diverse cultures are also driving us toward an era of homogenized, weedy, and uniformly impoverished plant and animal communities that ecologist Gordon Orians has dubbed the Homogocene. It is a play on the naming of geologic time periods that I translate loosely from its Greek roots as "the epoch of sameness or monotony." The invasive species phenomenon poses such a threat to human health and livelihoods that ecologist Michael Soulé wonders why it has not become a "motherhood issue."

Few governments have raised the issue to motherhood priority, although New Zealand and Australia have come close. Nevertheless, the political will to act on the problem of biological invasions (bioinvasions, for short) is growing. Heightened awareness of bioinvasions has developed at the same time that nations have been implementing an unprecedented round of global trade liberalization agreements. These agreements have accelerated the worldwide movement of vessels, cargo, and people—and, as a consequence, the risk of new invasions. As the volume and value of goods traded soared during the 1990s, so did the number of organisms in motion, incidentally or intentionally. Accelerating and costly invasions have caused many governments to begin to rethink their quarantine systems for excluding unwanted organisms and their often lax oversight of deliberate imports of new plants and animals. In the United States, the arrival of the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes in the late 1980s—with its damaging and costly habit of encrusting and fouling everything from boat hulls to industrial water intake pipes—was the first of a number of incursions that brought the issue of bioinvasions into the spotlight. In 1999, at the urging of 500 scientists and land managers, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order creating the National Invasive Species Council. In early 2001, the council released a management plan designed to improve the country's capacity to prevent the introduction of invasive alien species and control their spread.

At the international level, the Convention on Biological Diversity, or Biodiversity Treaty, signed at the United Nations' Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recognized the threat that invading species pose to biodiversity. One provision, Article 8h, calls on member nations to "prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species." The treaty took effect in 1993, and some 180 countries have ratified it (the United States, unfortunately, is one of the few that have not). One responsibility of each treaty nation is to prepare a national biodiversity strategy and action plan; a key issue for nations in the early 1990s was how to approach the implementation of Article 8h. Few countries at the time had the awareness or knowledge to address the problem of invasive alien species. In 1996, the Norway/United Nations Conference on Alien Species brought representatives from eighty nations together with scientists and technical experts on bioinvasions. At that meeting, the concept for the Global Invasive Species Programme (GISP) was born. GISP was established in 1997 to gather an international team of biologists, natural resource managers, economists, lawyers, and policy makers who could help bring the issue of bioinvasions to the forefront of the international agenda and support the implementation of Article 8h of the Biodiversity Treaty This book is part of the GISP effort.


Excerpted from A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines by Yvonne Baskin. Copyright © 2002 The Scientific Committee. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
ONE - Introduction: Confronting a Shrinking World,
TWO - Reuniting Pangaea,
THREE - Wheat and Trout, Weeds and Pestilence,
FOUR - Elbowing Out the Natives,
FIVE - The Good, the Bad, the Fuzzy,
SIX - The Making of a Pest,
SEVEN - Taking Risks with Strangers,
EIGHT - Stemming the Tide,
NINE - Beachheads and Sleepers,
TEN - Taking Control,
ELEVEN - Islands No Longer,
TWELVE - Can We Preserve Integrity of Place?,
APPENDIX A - 100 of the World's Worst Invasive Alien Species,
APPENDIX B - Index to Scientific Names of Cited Invasive Species,

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