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Native Vs. Invasive - August 16, 2015

A huge problem in trying to conserve and preserve our natural landscapes is the introduction of invasive species. Invasive species are non-native species, introduced either on purpose or by accident, that thrive in their new environment. Invasive species pose such a large threat because they have no local natural predators and are able to outcompete native species for food and shelter, allowing their population to grow rapidly. Invasive species can be both plants and animals and once they establish themselves in the local ecosystem, they can be a major problem to get ride of. 

A native species is a species that historically lives in a particular region, contributing to and helping to maintain the local food chain. While some local native populations are still flourishing, most native species have to put up with competition from invasive species and added stress, putting a strain on these species and reducing their historic populations.

Often people confuse invasive species with non-native species. Invasive species are non-native species that wreak havoc on an ecosystem while non-native species were introduced to a new ecosystem but do not always pose a threat to the ecosystem. All invasive species are non-native but all non-natives are invasive. 

One such invasive species that has quickly spread across Marylands coastal bays is Phragmites australis, otherwise known as “Phragmites” or “Phrag.” Phragmites is a coarse  marsh grass that can expand rapidly, both vertically and horizontally. Phragmites can reach heights of anywhere between 15 to 20 feet and creates dense stands throughout freshwater and saltwater marshes. Due to its size and propensity to create such thick stands, phragmites tends to outcompete and shade out native species of marsh grass such as Spartina and other species. When phragmites outcompetes native plant species it results in a vegetative monoculture and this in turn can lower the animal biodiversity as well. 

Phragmites is particularly suited to spread quickly throughout a marsh, even if there are other well established native plants. Phragmites has a strong, sturdy and thick root system and often reproduces using creeping rhizomes off of its roots. Stands of phragmites have both vertical and horizontal rhizomes, allowing quick and easy distribution of nutrients for maximum growth and reproduction. Newer stands will also have long surface runners to help expedite the stand growth. 

Our Bays are very susceptible to invasive species because of its easy access and wide range of salinity, allowing a large variety of organisms to inhabit it. An invasive species that is a great threat to the aquatic ecosystems here on the Eastern shore is Nutria. Nutria are a large brown rodent that can be distinguished by its big bright orange teeth. They originate from the marshes of South America and were brought up to Louisiana in the 1930’s for fur and have since spread out to many other regions. 

Nutria are a threat to our marshes because they feed on the roots of our native marsh grasses. The grasses are important because they are used as habitat, nursery, and a food source for a lot of our native organisms, both terrestrial and aquatic. Because the nutria have no natural predators in Maryland, they are able to reproduce rapidly and eat our marsh roots right up. Efforts for the eradication of nutria are going strong, and we have seen a reduction of Nutria in a few places here in Maryland. In 1999 President Clinton signed an executive order to control invasive species, which was followed up with President Bush signing the more specific Nutria Eradication and Control Act of 2003. Since then we have progressed greatly in the eradication of nutria but they are still a population we must keep an eye on to avoid future problems.

Invasive species take a great toll on our economy. We rely heavily on our natural resources like wetlands so when an invasive such as nutria and phragmites come and degrade it to such an extent, we lose a lot of money. Businesses that rely on our wetlands lose the most; some examples of these business are agriculture, ecotourism, commercial fisheries, the seafood industry, recreational fishing, hunting, and trapping. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on the eradication of nutria and phragmites and the restoration of marshes that have been targeted by these and other pesky invasive species. 

If we focus on maintaining native species and continuing invasive removal, our local ecosystems should start to restore themselves. Preventing the introduction of invasive species is the best form of fighting invasive species, and the cheapest. There are many simple things you can do to prevent invasive species from being introduced such as doing your research on whether the plants you put in your garden are native. Another method is to make sure all of your belongings are clean when traveling and to leave foreign plants and animals behind. This means that you need to clean your shoes, bags, and mode of transportation. Another way to prevent invasive species introduction into our ecosystems is to not release pets into the wild.

 

Joanna Trojanowski is the Education Intern for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 


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