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Here is a stamp which combines two of my fascinations—catfish and Namibia.  Of course Namibia is a vast and profoundly arid desert—literally a sea of sand—so perhaps you are wondering how a catfish made it onto their postage.  Well the African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) has a habit of getting everywhere.  It lives throughout most of Africa and the Middle East and (though ill-conceived aquaculture) has established colonies in Vietnam, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.  The catfish is an air breather.  It can sip pure air without the use of its gills, so it can survive in puddles, mud wallows, and even in filthy anaerobic water.  Some of them have moved into the sewers of big cities.  Speaking of big it is arguably Africa’s largest catfish with an average adult length of 1–1.5 m (3 ft 3 inches –4 ft 11 inches).  Even in a dry land like Namibia this tough persistent catfish manages to find watercourses of one sort or another.  Like its close cousin, the walking catfish of Asia, the African sharptooth catfish is a remarkable creature.

African sharptooth catfish (C. gariepinus)

African sharptooth catfish (C. gariepinus)

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying.   Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef).  Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark.  The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates.  The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems.  If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself.  The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing,  Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors.   I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true.  I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems.  Take that, evil starfish!  You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man.  The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug.  I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.

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KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Different pots of mint

Yesterday’s post was about the ancient Greek myth of how mint came into being. In the gardens and glades of the real world, there are all sorts of mints.  This genus of asterid herbs is known as “Mentha” (linguists believe the name came into Greek from an extinct pre-literate Indo-European tongue). There is peppermint, catnip, and apple mint.  There are spearmints, different pennyroyals, horse mint, and even something ominously called gray mint.  However botanists cannot agree on how many species of mints there actually are.  The different varieties hybridize so frequently (and produce such fecund offspring), that it is unclear where the species lines are.

Flowering mints (Image via Herb Gully)

Flowering mints (Image via Herb Gully)

Mints live around the world in temperate regions across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America.  They can reproduce asexually or through aggressive fast-growing runners.  Mint flowers are white and purple “false” whorls. Every gardener is aware that mint can swiftly spread from a little pot into a nightmarish tangle of junglelike weeds.  The plant is aggressive and invasive and perennial.  Humankind’s ancient fondness for different mints also have further ensured that it is distributed everywhere.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal

Peppermint get its peppery flavor from menthol.  The spiciness of pennyroyal comes from a compound called pulegone, and spearmints get their flavor from a turpenoid known as Lcarvone (which is why spearmint oils can be used as solvents).  These compounds are non-toxic to humans (although there are people who are allergic to mint) but they tend to powerfully effect insects.  Mints can be effective insect repellants or even downright insecticidal.

Spearmint

Spearmint

I said that mint is non-toxic to people (in reasonable amounts) but that doesn’t mean the herb is not psychoactive.  Increasingly it seems likely that mints are effective anti-nauseants and they might also contain potent stimulants. I hedged that sentence somewhat: despite humankind’s long love affair with this ancient herb, it has not been fully studied by science.  Maybe there is a reason mint tea and candy is so popular!

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Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus, the European cornflower is an aster which once grew as a weed across Europe (particularly in grain fields). As agriculture has grown more sophisticated (and herbicides more puissant), the cornflower has become uncommon to the point of extinction in its native habitat. Yet the cornflower is far from gone: its bright blue color means that some enthusiasts grow it as an ornamental garden plant. Additionally, in the era before herbicides and intensive agriculture, cornflower seeds frequently contaminated planting seeds—which meant that the cornflower traveled to Australia, the Americas, and Asia where it quickly became invasive.

CornflowerBlueSwatch (Large)

The cornflower, also known as the bachelor button or knapweed is the national flower of Germany.  It has long been traditional for unmarried men to wear one in their buttonhole (although I abjure this practice myself).

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

The most famous aspect of cornflowers is their dazzling bright blue color which inclines very slightly towards purple. For centuries, this color has been a favorite of tailors, decorators, dressmakers, and artists. Cornflower blue is thus a classic traditional name for this brilliant midtone blue: indeed the color was very much a favorite of Vermeer. The name is still very much in use, so it is perfectly correct to imagine some charlatan or fop of the Restoration era donning a cornflower coat of the same color as the bridesmaids will be wearing at your cousins’ wedding next week.

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The Shore Crab or European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas)

The Shore Crab or European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas)

The green crab (Carcinus maenas) is a tiny brownish green crab native to the European shore line along the north-east Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea.  Although it measures only 90 millimetres (3.5 in) across, it is voracious omnivore which feeds on all sorts of small mollusks, tiny arthropods, and worms (not to mention whatever dead flesh it happens across).  Green crabs are great and all, but this blog is not about crustaceans…Why is this little crab showing up here?

A green crab eating a clam

A green crab eating a clam

It turns out that the green crab is one of the most invasive species of our time.  Like the fiendish zebra mussel, the green crab is capable of traveling by boat (either among barnacles or in ballast).  As far back as the age of discovery they were hitching rides around the world on the hulls of wooden ships.  The little crabs seem to have piggy backed into temperate climes along with the British Empire and they have set up ranges in Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and both coasts of North America.  So far this has not been a big problem: for hundreds of years, cold waters and big hungry fish have kept the little crabs from proliferating.  However as humankind moves forward with its dastardly plans to kill off every fish in the ocean (and as ocean temperatures rise) the crabs are beginning to flourish in places where they were once barely holding on by their claws.

Green Crabs Spreading through the World's Oceans...Yikes!

Green Crabs Spreading through the World’s Oceans…Yikes!

Green crabs eat clams and juvenile oysters—so their success is causing hardship for mollusk fishers (while simultaneously removing filter feeders from the ocean).  Along the Mid Atlantic coast of North America, the native blue crab has proven effective at out-competing (or just straight-up eating) the invasive green crabs.  Similarly the rock crabs and Dungeness crabs of the Pacific northwest can hold their own against the invaders, but humans are overfishing these native crabs and allowing the invaders to proliferate (and seafood enthusiasts in America have not developed a taste for the tiny green crabs).

Not exactly a whole seafood platter...

Not exactly a whole seafood platter…

Will the warming of the oceans cause blue crabs to spread northward to defeat the invaders?  Will humankind stop killing every fish in the ocean so that the green crabs are eaten by sea bass?   Will we introduce a new species which preys on the green crabs (but brings its own problems)?  Only time will tell, but already coastal Maine is being swept by a tide of little green claws (and delicious east coast oysters are becoming more expensive and more rare).

"Dead or Alive", people...

“Dead or Alive”, people…

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Our nation is being invaded!  The intruders number in the millions.  They are wiping out entire ecosystems, destroying electronics, and setting fires.  Fortunately the invading species, Nylanderia fulva, is rather small:  each individual measures only 3.2 mm (.12 inches).  In 2002 the ants arrived on America’s Gulf Coast from Argentina or Brazil where they live naturally. These ants are called Nylanderia fulva because of their brownish yellow fulvous color, but in America they are more commonly known as crazy ants (thanks to their erratic and non-linear walking patterns) or Rasberry ants—in honor of Tom Rasberry a Texas exterminator who discovered them in Texas.

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The crazy ants have spread extensively in Texas and Florida and they have footholds in Mississippi and Louisiana.  They are highly successful foragers and hunters of small arthropods and, like some other ants, they farm aphids (!).  Nylanderia fulva is capable of forming extremely large hives with multiple queens—which gives them surprising immunity from many common American insecticides and ant-killing chemicals.  They are out-competing native fire ants and changing the micro-fauna of the areas where they are flourishing.

Crazy-ants

For whatever reason, crazy ants are attracted to electronics.  Because of their small size, they climb inside all sorts of switches, circuit boxes, and electric gizmos.  If an ant stumbles into a transistor and dies, its corpse emits a chemical which causes fellow hive members to rush to the scene (this is an evolutionary strategy for fending off attackers).  Unfortunately, the reinforcement ants are themselves electrocuted which causes a grim feedback scenario.  These ant death spirals can cause electronics to become disabled, or switch permanently on/off, or just catch fire (since they are jam packed with electrified ant corpses).

The Chicago Cityscape Stretching along the shore of Lake Michigan

Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post yesterday.  I am traveling the Great Lakes and Canada and will try to update when I am able.  Today I am in Chicago. As I was looking out at Lake Michigan, I wondered whether there were any catfish native to the vast body of water– which is so large it might as well be considered a freshwater sea.

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

As it turns out the lake is home to channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatu), the quintessential North American siluriform.  The channel catfish is a hardy omnivore which dwells in rivers, lakes, and ponds from southern Canada to northern Mexico.  They eat smaller fish, arthropods, worms, seeds, and just about any other edible thing which will fit into their mouths.  Channel catfish are nest breeders.  If the female catfish is unable to find a promising crevasse in which to lay her eggs, the male will arrange logs and rocks into a nesting bed for her.  He then guards the eggs until they hatch and even stays with the fry while they are very small (although if he is unduly disturbed he might eat the eggs and start all over again!).

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

While the channel catfish are hardly as flashy as some of the exotic catfish we have covered here, they are vastly successful organisms.  They can also grow to be fairly large and specimens measuring up to 23 kg (50 pounds) have been caught (although such giants are quite old and rare).  Although the catfish live naturally in Lake Michigan, they are also raised on farms throughout the American south (indeed they are the “Delecata” mentioned in this post about international catfish trade wars).  Channel catfish have been introduced in parts of Europe, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where they are now causing havoc among native species.

But Channel catfish here in the Great lakes are facing their own invasive threats.  Lake Michigan has been colonized by wave after wave of invasive animals.  Some, like the omnipresent zebra mussels, are harmless to catfish (albeit infuriating to humans).  Others like the sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are not so benign for catfish.  The jawless lampreys are vampires which attach to the bodies of catfish (and a wide variety of other native Great Lakes fish) and then rasp a hole in the hosts’ sides by means of sharpened tongue.  Even more alarmingly, the leaping thriving all-devouring Asian carp has been making its way up Illinois’ rivers towards Lake Michigan.  The state has been trying to prevent these dangerous fish from getting to the Lake by means of increasingly horrifying devices and stratagems such as underwater electric fences and mass poisonings.  So far it has been working but there is still an underwater war raging for Lake Michigan.

Invasive Silver Carp leap from the electrified water.

Landing horses from Australia (attributed to J. B. East ca.1834,
Watercolor on paper)

Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788.  They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers.  Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804.  In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses.  Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa.  In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians.  Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.

The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).

The Distribution of the Feral Horse in Australia According to the Department of Conservation

Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses.  Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:

The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.

The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”

Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem.  Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun.  Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe).  Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not.  Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization).  Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other.  Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely.  Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.

Brumbies in a eucalyptus forest

Ah Florida…sultry weather, orange groves, glistening beaches, pouting beauties, and palm trees…but also walking catfish, killer snakes, and now giant mollusks!  The semi-tropical peninsula is prey to wave after wave of exotic animal invaders.  The most-recent problem creatures are giant African snails, immense land snails that can grow up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. There are three extremely similar species of giant snails which come from West Africa: the giant African snail (Achatina fulica), the giant Ghana tiger snail (Achatina achatina), and the margies (Archachatina marginata).  Each snail has a brown swirly shell and grows to be about the size of an adult’s fist.

Archachatina marginata

The giant snails eat over 500 varieties of plants—including the majority of agricultural and ornamental species.  They also have a taste for stucco and siding so some Floridians now awaken to discover that huge mollusks are literally devouring their houses.  The snails are hermaphrodites and can lay up to 12000 eggs per year.  They can survive freezing temperatures.

Authorities continue to investigate how the snails got into the country but increasingly the evidence points to…voodoo.

In the Yoruba creation myth, the entire world was once water.  The god Obatala possessed a magic snail shell which contained earth. Acting on instructions from the supreme divinity Olódùmarè, Obatala cast this land upon the oceans, thus creating the continents.  Obatala then molded the land into men and beasts–but he possessed an artist’s temperament and thirst. As he crafted the Earth and its inhabitants he drank so much palm wine that his mental clarity became dulled and he made big parts of existence wrong.  Eventually he passed out altogether and his brother Oduduwa was left to finish the work and patch up the errors as best as he could.  Unfortunately big parts of humanity were assembled incorrectly and these flaws remain in evidence everywhere…

Obatala

Anyway a mainstay of Obatala worship is the sacrifice of snails (in memory of the primordial snail shell which contained the first earth).  Apparently one of Obatala’s worshippers illegally brought some giant African snails into Florida for religious reasons and they escaped from him.

So, to recap, a smuggler who worships a drunken deity brought giant hermaphrodite snails in to Florida as a religious devotion to his addled god.  Unfortunately the snails escaped and they are now eating people’s homes. Argh! What is wrong with us?  I’m going to go drink some palm wine…

Next time please just light a votive candle!

A Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)

Happy Easter!  To celebrate, we head down under to the island continent of Australia.  There, in the arid scrubland, lives the bilby (Macrotis lagotis) an omnivorous nocturnal marsupial with long ears, silky fur, and a long black and white tail.  Bilbies belong to the Peramelemorphia order (along with bandicoots and sundry extinct kin), and they are renowned for their ability to dig elaborate spiraling burrows and for having one of the shortest gestation periods of all mammals–a dozen days from fertilization to birth.  As is the case with the loveable wombats, bilbies’ pouches face backwards to help the animals excavate burrows and dig up supper.

Baby Bilbies in a hat! (image credit: theage.com.au)

Bilbies are blue-gray in color and they grow to about 29–55 centimetres (11–22 in) in length and 3.5 kgs (8 pounds) in weight.  They use their sharp claws to unearth a wide diet of insects, arthropods, larvae, small animals, seeds, fungi, bulbs, and fruit.  Bilbies rarely drink—they get all the moisture they need from their food.

But wait a minute!  Fossorial Marsupials? Arid scrubland?  Short gestation? What does any of this have to do with Easter?  Well, due to a century of continent-wide ecological disaster caused by a plague of invasive bunnies, Australians hate rabbits with a burning passion (although of course this was not actually the fault of rabbits but was yet another mistake made by nature’s most problematic children).  The Easter bunny is not as popular in Australia as elsewhere—giving an Australian child a candy Easter bunny would be like giving a New Yorker a chocolate Easter rat.

The Easter Bunny and the Easter Bilby

Fortunately Bilbies have boldly stepped in to the Easter bunny’s role. In a land where rabbits are regarded as an abomination, the long eared bilby has become the mascot of Easter. Throughout Australia, bilby-shaped confections and related merchandise are sold as an alternative to Easter bunnies.  Additionally a number of children’s books have popularized the Easter bilby who seems to have a touch of animist aboriginal magic.  For example a passage from Burra Nimu, the Easter Bilby, describes the dyeing of Easter eggs like a dreamtime myth of the desert:

“[The bilby] knew that eggs meant the start of new life and new hope, so he made his especially beautiful. He painted rich red eggs, the colour of the hot desert earth, and splashed them with bright sparkles, because the desert is full of life…Next, he painted soft green eggs and sprinkled them with the colours of the wild flowers he had once seen, soon after the water fell from the sky.

I always liked the Easter bunny (and don’t get me wrong, I’m still thankful for the baskets of candy and toys he left) but it seems appropriate that his role has been usurped in Australia. By taking over the function of a minor holiday deity, bilbies have gained new prominence as one of the symbols of Australian conservation.   Enjoy Easter (or Passover or Mawlid-al-Nabi) and enjoy this little bilbie gallery I have put together!

"I know I'm a symbol, but please put me down!"

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