Scientists Say: Invasive species | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Invasive species

These are foreign species that are causing problems in a new ecosystem
May 7, 2018 — 6:30 am EST
female cane toad

This is a cane toad. People brought this South American species to Australia to eat beetles in sugarcane fields. But the plan backfired. The toads have few predators in Australia, which let them spread unchecked across the northern part of the continent.

Benjamint444/Wikimedia Commons (GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

Invasive species (noun, “In-VAY-sihv SPEE-sees”)

This phrase describes an organism that is living and causing problems in an ecosystem where it is not native. This can be a plant, an animal, a fungus or even a bacterium or virus. Some invasive species arrive at a new habitat on their own. They may travel by wind or water. More often, though, people imported them either on purpose or by accident. Someone might acquire a foreign plant because they want to grow it for food. Or they might accidentally let an exotic animal out of an aquarium. Invasive species have even hitched rides on ships, cars, horses and shoes.

Most of the time, when a species lands in a new place, it doesn’t survive for long without help. Invasive species, though, survive and thrive. There may be no predators that eat them. Or they may gobble up plants that have no defenses against the invaders. If the species is a microbe, host organisms in the new land may have no way to fight them off. Without these kinds of controls, invasive species can multiply, causing harm to the ecosystem, people and even an entire country’s economy.

In a sentence

Farmers hoped sheep would eat up fireweed — an invasive species in Australia — but they just poop the seeds back out again.

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Power Words

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bacterium     (pl. bacteria) A single-celled organism. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside of plants and animals.

economy     Term for the combined wealth and resources (people, jobs, land, forests and minerals, for instance) of a nation or region. It is often measured in terms of jobs and income or in terms of the production and use of goods (such as products) and services (for instance, nursing or internet access).

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of components in some electronics system or product).

evolve     (adj. evolving) To change gradually over generations, or a long period of time. In living organisms, such an evolution usually involves random changes to genes that will then be passed along to an individual’s offspring. These can lead to new traits, such as altered coloration, new susceptibility to disease or protection from it, or different shaped features (such as legs, antennae, toes or internal organs). Nonliving things may also be described as evolving if they change over time. For instance, the miniaturization of computers is sometimes described as these devices evolving to smaller, more complex devices.

exotic     An adjective to describe something that is highly unusual, strange or foreign (such as exotic plants).

fungus     (plural: fungi) One of a group of single- or multiple-celled organisms that reproduce via spores and feed on living or decaying organic matter. Examples include mold, yeasts and mushrooms.

habitat     The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.

host      (in biology and medicine) The organism (or environment) in which some other thing resides. Humans may be a temporary host for food-poisoning germs or other infective agents.

invasive species     (also known as aliens) A species that is found living, and often thriving, in an ecosystem other than the one in which it evolved. Some invasive species were deliberately introduced to an environment, such as a prized flower, tree or shrub. Some entered an environment unintentionally, such as a fungus whose spores traveled between continents on the winds. Still others may have escaped from a controlled environment, such as an aquarium or laboratory, and begun growing in the wild. What all of these so-called invasives have in common is that their populations are becoming established in a new environment, often in the absence of natural factors that would control their spread. Invasive species can be plants, animals or disease-causing pathogens. Many have the potential to cause harm to wildlife, people or to a region’s economy.

organism     Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

predator     (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.